Happy International Women's Day! The theme of IWD for 2017 is #BeBoldForChange. Dinner on the Table has pledged to be bold for change for women with disabilities.
Today is a great day to celebrate the very many roles women take. Just over half the Australian population are women, and a great many of us become mothers at some point in our lives. For many girls, there is an expectation, either subtle or outspoken, that they will have children of their own "when they grow up".
But some women are never expected to become mothers. They are not exposed to caring for younger children, such as babysitting, in the same way as their peers. They may be discouraged from forming partner relationships when they become adults. In fact, they may be told outright they should never have children, no matter how much they might desire a family of their own.
Women with intellectual disabilities are one such group. These women are often treated like children themselves. Pregnancy, if it occurs, may be treated as a 'mistake never to be repeated', rather than a cause for joy and celebration.
Most women who have embarked on motherhood will tell you what a challenge the early days are. There are the seemingly eternal sleepless nights, the worry over whether their baby is alright, whether they are doing the right thing, how they will ever manage to get a shower or even finish a single cup of tea. The majority will tell you: accept any help that's offered!
Women with intellectual disabilities face all these challenges too. But on top of this, they also often face the scrutiny of family, friends and child protection authorities regarding their capacity to parent. One mother I spent time with some years ago told me about her time in hospital after her eldest child was born. Her baby was taken to the hospital nursery while every other mother had their babies in their rooms with them. The hospital stationed a security guard at the door of her room to make sure she didn't attempt to access her child without supervision.
After a couple of days, when she had spent so very little time with her child, it was decided that she did not have the skills to care for her baby and could not take him home. Child protection authorities removed the baby from the hospital nursery while she was still guarded in her room.
Child welfare is, of course, a concern for all of us. But imagine the pressure of trying to learn how to care for your brand new baby, always being watched, and knowing that anything you do or don't do for your child could be construed as evidence that you are unable to cope?
In Australia as many as 1 in 2 children of parents with intellectual disabilities are removed from their care. These parents appear before children's courts more often than any other group in the community. And yet, substantiated abuse or neglect of children is very rare.
Like the woman who shared her experience with me some years ago, these women lose custody of their children because, as a society, we can't cope with the idea that women with disabilities, who need support just like all of us, can care for their children. And as a society we don't know how best to provide the support they need.
At Dinner on the Table, we figure that these households, just like all of us, need to eat. They eat dinner. And they eat it every single day. So why don't we start by taking that pressure off? Who knows what it might lead to?