Gender based violence meets disability violence
The intersection of gender based violence and disability violence is the single biggest issue for women with disabilities globally. Across all of our cultures, our circumstances, and our levels of activism, violence tops the list every time. Yet little is being done to combat this major element in the lives of women with disabilities.
Why? Is it that it’s too hard? Is it that it’s not being approached through the lens of intersectionality? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, but it’s really the lack of an intersectional approach that is the biggest problem. The women’s movement forgets that women with disabilities have disabilities, and the disability movement doesn’t like to look at gender based violence. So, we’re stuck in the middle and get nowhere.
The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children (the National Plan) lists women with disabilities as one of the key demographic areas requiring significant attention. Yet only one small project was funded under the major funding round in 2012 to support the Plan achieving its targets. Not because good projects weren’t put forward, there were plenty, but because other areas of work have higher profiles, more political pressure attached to them, and are less uncomfortable to talk about.
You would think that the appallingly high rates of gender based violence experienced by many other Australian women might cause a similar effect, but somehow the 90% sexual assault rate for women with cognitive disabilities (Valenti-Hein, D. & Schwartz, L. 1995) trumps the lot when it comes time to look the other way. People really don’t want to know, much less do something about it. And the women who are affected are not women who are getting out in the street, or writing blogs, or being high profile about the need to make change. Many of the women affected are unable to get out in the street without the perpetrator supporting them to do so.
90% is just one statistic in this field but it’s pretty appalling.
Another one to look for is the incredibly high rate of rape and sexual assault for women in institutions and residential care – the women with disabilities who need high levels of daily support to survive. The UN CEDAW committee told Australia in 2010 that the level of violence perpetrated against these women needed to be urgently addressed, yet the National Plan hasn’t done anything about it, and nothing is currently being worked on. It’s not even recognised by the law as domestic violence.
In the end Women with Disabilities Australia was asked to provide evidence of the levels of violence, and its widespread nature despite two decades of work, research and publications about the issue. After some intense lobbying a project to gather evidence was funded.
One of the biggest barriers to addressing violence against women with disabilities is the lack of understanding about what it looks like. Sure, there is the same horrific gender based violence that all women are at risk of experiencing, but the added layer of disability violence changes the picture entirely. That 90% figure doesn’t come from nowhere, it’s about an extension of the power dynamic that is gender based violence, and how it intersects with disability violence and its dehumanising of people with disabilities.
Women with disabilities experience violence in a number of ways, some of which are not even recognised by government policy makers as “violence” and this is part of the problem. If policy makers won’t even recognise that this is a form of gender based violence then we will continue to get nowhere.
Women with disabilities are physically and chemically restrained, have their aids and equipment withheld, are told they are “ugly sluts” yet are raped at higher levels than other women, have their disability used against them through either verbal or physical abuse, are sadistically experimented on to “see what happens”, are sexually coerced and exploited, are raped after being immobilised by drugs or having their mobility equipment taken away, are locked up in back rooms, are gang raped in their workplaces, have their children removed, and are sterilised.
Gender based violence uses power as its ultimate weapon. Disability related violence uses the person’s disability as the weapon by turning it back on the person with disability. Women with disabilities live with a combination of the two forms of violence perpetrated by those most close to them on whom they must depend on.
Many many women with disabilities are not safe in their homes or places of residence, and are not believed when something happens. Many are disbelieved or accused of crying wolf to get attention. It is quite common for the perpetrator to also be the person who facilitates contact with the outside world, so the women is left with no option but to stay silent. Worse still these places are often not covered by domestic violence law (pg8) as they are not defined as “domestic”, despite being where women with disabilities live, so the exit pathways are limited to common assault with its heavier burden of proof.
Families keep their daughters locked away for “safety”, or put them under guardianship to prevent them being anywhere they don’t know about, or tell them to “move on” if they have been raped. The barriers other women face in speaking out about rape and violence are compounded by the need to seek permission from families to speak out. Many just bury it and try to forget, or don’t bother speaking up next time it happens.
Ultimately, gender based violence towards women with disabilities is very hidden, rarely responded to by the justice system, and poorly responded to by both disability services and women’s services. Recently there has been substantial work done to increase the capacity of women’s services to respond to women with disabilities but these systems still rely on women who are able to initiate their exit pathway and who can operate fairly independently.
I work with women with cognitive disabilities and am daily confronted by the 90% sexual assault rate. Some years ago I realised that just about every women I came into contact with through my work had most likely been raped or assaulted, sterilised, had her children removed, and/or been sexually exploited at some time in her life. Most women experience many types of violence and more than once. Disturbingly, many women know something is wrong (pg7), feel uncomfortable about it, but accept that this is just what being a woman with disability is about.
Until violence against women with disabilities is responded to through an intersectional lens, which recognises that this is about both gender and disability at the same time, it is unlikely we will make any progress towards addressing what is going on. We need a disability sector which understands gender based violence, and a women’s services sector which has a better handle on understanding disability. There is no other way. We can’t just keep pretending it isn’t happening and hope it will all go away.