SDG Goal 5.2 “Eliminate all Forms of Violence Against all Women and Girls in the Public and Private Spheres”
Gender-based violence is one of the pervasive tragedies of our time. This is a reality captured by the jarring statistic that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime and an everyday atrocity that is not inevitable, but rather a choice made each time by the perpetrator of the crime.
The global community has rallied to bring an end to violence against women, seeking to shift social norms and remedy the lack of legal address that have allowed or created environments where such choices are condoned or even encouraged. From the international Orange the World Campaign, to Guinea’s ‘Don’t You Touch My Sister’ movement, to each organisation and tireless advocate working on the ground, the awareness of and commitment to eliminating gender-based violence appears to be stronger than ever.
As these endeavours build momentum, face challenges and achieve success, it is crucial that the drive to eliminate violence against all women includes all women. A criticism of mainstream movements is that women and girls with disabilities often remain at the margins of decision-making and work on gender equality, and that the specific needs of women with disabilities have been invisible to advocates of both women’s rights and disability rights. With concern to the topic at hand, it is estimated that women and girls with disabilities are twice as likely as other women and girls to experience sexual and gender-based violence, and are more likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time. It follows that in order to make certain the elimination of violence against all women, efforts must be inclusive of women with disabilities.
The intersection of gender and disability increases the vulnerability of women with disabilities to violence. In addition to the forms of violence against women, with which most women’s rights advocates are familiar, women and girls with disabilities also encounter specific forms of violence that are associated to their disability. A comprehensive report, Forgotten Sisters provides an extensive overview of violence against women and girls with disabilities.
A number of factors contribute to an increased risk of violence including isolation, communication barriers, lack of support structures, limitations in physical mobility and common myths that they are weak, stupid or asexual. Social stereotypes that attempt to dehumanise or infantilise them, exclude or isolate them, target them for sexual and other forms of violence, also put them at greater risk of institutionalised violence.
Women with disabilities may experience violence in their home from relatives, professionals or intruders. Their abuser may be their caregiver; someone the individual is reliant on for personal care or mobility. When they seek assistance from police or other members of the community, their complaints may not be taken seriously or disbelieved entirely due to stigma or stereotyping. Barriers to accessing justice for women with disabilities further complicate their ability to seek redress and protection. The justice system is often physically inaccessible and law enforcement officials and the legal community are ill equipped to address the violence.
Women with disabilities are often treated as if they have no control, or should have no control, over their reproductive health and other aspects of their bodies. They may be forcibly sterilised or forced to terminate wanted pregnancies. Women are also more likely to be institutionalised than men with disabilities. In institutional settings, women with disabilities are subjected to numerous forms of violence, including forced intake of psychotropic drugs or other forced psychiatric treatment.
These are just a few examples.
The Forgotten Sisters report further makes recommendations to the global community to better address these issues. These include advice that women’s rights organisations should seek to collaborate with disability organisations, and vice versa, in order to ensure gender discrimination is compounded with disability. The report also recommends that training materials be developed on prevention of and response to violence against women with disabilities that are culturally appropriate within countries, cultures and populations, and that awareness is raised among prosecutors, courts, post conflict tribunals, and also within community organisations, women’s rights organisations and disability rights organisations. With each recommendation comes a reminder to ensure that work is consistently done in collaboration with women with disabilities, using a lens of empowerment, not vulnerability.
The mainstreaming of disability into gender dialogue is underway. One example is UN Women’s support to the Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe Trust in its work to facilitate access to justice for at least 900 women and girls with disabilities that have survived violence or are currently involved in legal matters as complainants or witnesses. However, it is imperative that collaborative work of this kind continues and increases, and that awareness of the specific forms of violence experienced by women with disabilities becomes widely known so that it can be better challenged and eliminated. More broadly, it is important that women’s rights movements become more inclusive of women and girls with disabilities.
Ailsa Griffith is currently working with Make Every Woman Count as a Communications & Advocacy Intern.