Violence against women and girls with disabilities

Hannah Lorryman.
Author:Hannah Loryman
Posted on: Tuesday, 8th March, 2016

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International Women’s Day is an annual opportunity to celebrate progress made towards equality for women. But it is also a reminder of how far we still are from this goal – particularly for women with disabilities who are experiencing violence around the world.

Violence against women and girls has been described as a ‘global pandemic.’ And it is easy to see why. 1 in 3 women has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Women with disabilities are even more likely to face violence, experience it for a longer period and are less able to escape or access justice.   Globally, adults with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be victims of violence and for adults with mental health conditions this rises to a staggering 4 times more.   Men with disabilities are also at a much higher risk of experiencing violence and, although there is very little research, this violence is likely to be driven by many of the factors that cause violence against women. While the numbers are likely to be smaller than women, this is still a significant problem which is rarely discussed.  

Why does violence happen?

Largely, women with disabilities are victims of violence for many of the same reasons as women without disabilities. Violence against women is often a result of gender relations and gender norms and the unequal power relations between men and women. This is amplified for women with disabilities who experience more discrimination and marginalisation and are much less likely to be viewed as equals – either in their households or communities. This increased level of discrimination means that their risk of experiencing violence is also amplified.   Having a disability also brings additional risk factors – such as living in an institution or being dependent (either for care, mobility or finance) on a family or a partner.  

Low levels of reporting

The problem doesn’t just end with the high number of women with disabilities facing violence. Globally reporting of violence is low, especially when this violence is committed by a partner or family member. Women with disabilities are also less likely to report violence and even if they do they are less likely to be able to access justice.   Many of the reasons that women without disabilities don’t report violence or can’t access justice are the same as for other women. For example, they may be afraid of the consequences of reporting, may feel that nothing will be done or not know who to talk to. For women with disabilities the multiple discriminations that they face make them even less likely to report. Many more women with disabilities do not work and so they are more likely to be financially dependent on family or a partner – and so the consequences of reporting could be more severe.   Women often do not tell anyone because they feel that they won’t be believed – this is particularly an issue for women with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who are less likely to be seen as credible witnesses. As one woman in our research in Cambodia put it “I have never told other people because they will not think it is true, and since my father-in-law is the vice chief, most people in the community respect him. They are afraid that they will not be invited to participate in the community or receive gifts.”  

And so what can be done?

In recent years violence against women and girls has risen up the agenda as a development issue, including high level political commitment from the UK and inclusion in the new Sustainable Development Goals. If organisations are serious about tackling violence against women and girls – they must reach women with disabilities.   The Department for International Development commissioned a really interesting piece of research looking at ‘What works’ to tackle violence against women and girls – and we were really pleased to see that it included a paper on disability. Unfortunately there was so little out there documenting what works that the paer was hardly able to come to any conclusions.   It is vital for us to build more evidence on what work to tackle violence against women and girls with disabilities. Programmes addressing violence must make sure that they understand the specific barriers that women may face in accessing their programmes and look to overcome these. We need to make sure that data on violence against women and girls is being disaggregated by disability – otherwise we won’t know who is affected and who is being reached by prevention efforts.It is also important that wder work to tackle discrimination and stigma against women with disabilities continues, to reduce the underlying causes of violence.   The discrimination that women with disabilities face may in some cases make them harder to reach – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reaching.  

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