Q&A with Stephanie Ortoleva, Women Enabled International

Updated: March 2016
A woman wears glasses and looks to the left

Stephanie Ortoleva is the President and founder of Women Enabled International (WEI) and is a highly recognized international human rights lawyer, policy and development consultant, author and researcher on issues of women's rights, disability rights and the rights of women and girls with disabilities. She is the Founder and President of Women Enabled International.  Her work with WEI focuses on human rights programming and training in developing, transition, and post-conflict countries, as well as consulting for governments, NGOs and international organizations. As a woman with a disability herself she brings the development, academic and legal perspectives to her work as well as her personal experience as a woman with a disability. Previously Stephanie was an attorney and human rights officer at the U.S. Department of State, where she served on U.S. Government Delegations at international multilateral venues regarding disability rights and women's rights, including at the negotiations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Among her various honors, recently Stephanie was named a Women's ENews 21 Leaders 2016 - she Rises Up for disabled women and girls!


Why did you decide to found Women Enabled International?


Women Enabled International (WEI) was founded to bring global attention to the urgent need to advance the human rights of women and girls with disabilities internationally. For many years before the founding of WEI, human rights advocacy was segmented: on the one hand there was growing international advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities and on the other hand women’s rights advocacy was expanding globally. But in neither of these advocacy realms were issues of women and girls with disabilities discussed. For example,at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, there was barely a mention of disabled women in the dialogues and panel discussions. WEI has sponsored such events beginning in 2011 and now, to a greater extent, issues concerning disabled women are integrated into events even when disabled women’s issues are not the focus.  More and more, WEI is recognized as unique, innovative and ground-breaking.


How is Women Enabled International breaking barriers for women with disabilities to participate in political and public life?


Through WEI’s engagement with UN mechanisms and through our increasing collaborations with in-country disabled women’s rights organizations, our movement is holding governments accountable on legislation, policy development and implementation and political processes which are inclusive of women and girls with disabilities and our organizations.


For example, WEI worked with women with disability rights advocates in India to engage with the women’s rights community and the India legislature to ensure that women with disabilities were included in the new anti-rape legislation following the Delhi gang rape. 


You have been highly involved in discussions on legal rights. How would you characterize, in theory and in practice, the intersection of rights of women and rights of persons with disabilities?


WEI works at the intersection of women’s rights and disability rights to advocate for the rights of women and persons with disabilities, focusing on the rights of women and girls with disabilities in collaboration with women with disabilities rights organizations and women’s rights organizations worldwide. Through such collaborations, WEI fosters cooperation between organizations of women and girls with disabilities and women's rights organizations for understanding, cross-cutting advocacy, and the advancement of all women and girls.  


WEI uses an intersectional approach to advocacy, thereby recognizing the fact that women with disabilities are women too! But we must go beyond these intersections. We must consider and recognize the multiple and intersecting dimensions of the lives of women and girls with disabilities – we also are of different identities, some of us are indigenous women, some of us are part of linguistic minorities, some of us have different sexual identities, some of us live in rural communities and others live in urban communities, some of us are women of color, and so on. These multiple and intersecting identities may well influence our political engagement along with our identity as a disabled woman.


You’ve recently been named one of Women’s eNews’s 21 Leaders of 2016. What message might you share with future leaders about participation or representation of women with disabilities?


As I recently told an audience of women and girls with disabilities in high school, college and graduate school, start getting involved politically. Run for class president, leader of a school organization and/or get involved in local or national political campaigns. This is important for three reasons:  first it gives young disabled women first hand leadership experience and helps to develop skills necessary to launch one’s leadership in political office later on in your career; second, engagement with political campaigns helps one to see how the “experts” do it (and maybe how one should not do it!) and also helps one to raise issues of concern to disabled women and girls with politicians; third, others will see young disabled women as role models for others and as highly skilled leaders in their own right.


You can connect with Women Enabled International:, follow WEI on Twitter, find and like WomenEnabled on facebook at, and connect on LinkedIn at: under Stephanie Ortoleva, for information on human rights, women’s rights and the rights of women with disabilities internationally.