Hidden and suffering in silence

Date: January 1, 1970
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A new study, to be launched in December, on violence against women with disabilities revealed that perpetrators of violence often find more inventive ways of inflicting harm on women with disabilities. This is reflected in Rose? story and in the experiences of many other women with disabilities.

Rose* and her daughter have been blinded by the constant physical abuse they endured at the hands of her husband. After Rose lost her sight, her husband continued the physical violence but also exploited her disability to inflict new forms of abuse on her by feeding her worm-riddled porridge. Being blind, she was unaware that he watched her eat the infested porridge, whilst pretending to eat as well, only to throw his food out later. She only became aware of the situation when a friend informed her that she was, in fact, consuming worm-riddled food.

On a separate occasion Rose’s husband strew her bed sheets with thorns from a cactus plant.  When Rose got into bed that night she was impaled by hundreds of thorns.

Unfortunately, Rose’s experience is not unique- it is shared by many other women with disabilities who are in abusive relationships.

A new study, to be launched in December, on violence against women with disabilities revealed that perpetrators of violence often find more inventive ways of inflicting harm on women with disabilities. This is reflected in Rose’ story and in the experiences of many other women with disabilities. For Rose the violence she experienced not only resulted in her disability, but also created new, crueller avenues for abuse.

Other experiences recounted by women with disabilities spoke of incidents of partners purposefully locking wheelchairs away rendering the women immobile; smashing hearing aids thereby limiting women’s ability to communicate; family members and partners exploiting disability grants; incidents of sexual harassment sparked by sexual curiosity of the ‘disabled’ and opportunistic rape because of the women’s limited mobility. Thus whilst all women are vulnerable to gender violence, women with disabilities appear to experience the destructive effects of violence to a greater extent.

Recent international studies have revealed the following in relation to violence against women with disabilities:
**Disabled women are twice or three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than their non-disabled counterparts.
**At least 85% of women with developmental disabilities have experienced domestic violence sometime in their lives and in comparison to non – disabled women, they suffer chronic domestic violence for longer periods of time.
**Less than half of these women reported the abuse because of their fear of and their dependency on the abuser.

Our study showed that despite the prevalence and disturbing nature of abuse perpetrated against women with disabilities, such violence is often not acknowledged. Society’s negative perceptions and ostracism of women with disabilities affords them an ‘invisible’ status, which often manifests in increased exposure to violence and fewer opportunities for recourse. If violence against women with disabilities is recognised, services available to these women are often inadequate.

The findings highlighted a number of obstacles encountered by women with disabilities when attempting to access assistance in the aftermath of violence.

Accessing service providers often presented the first of many impediments: women with disabilities often need to negotiate precarious roads to access buildings, ramps often serve cosmetic purposes only as they are either too steep or too narrow, making them dangerous to women in wheelchairs.

When the women eventually made contact, the actual service provided was inadequate. Service providers had no training on disability issues and had no resources available to adequately cater to the needs of women with disabilities. No information is made available in Braille and often no sign language interpreters are present. This meant that these women were referred to organisations specialising in disability, adding to their difficulties in accessing help.

Making disability matter….

Both the State and civil society have a responsibility to ensure that the marginalisation of this group does not continue to go unnoticed. Negative attitudes and barriers to assistance need to be eliminated if any significant shifts are to be made.

Disability needs to be constructed as a social phenomenon rather than an individual defect. Understanding disability in this way serves to shift the focus away from the disabled individual to the society that is disabling. From this perspective disability is not seen to arise from the individuals’ impairments, but from the way that society is organised and perceives disability. Thus, recognising and addressing the needs of people with disabilities within a framework of inclusion is the first step to providing equal, adequate services.

Both government and civil society need to see women with disabilities as citizens with rights and entitlements, rather than dependents in need of charity and special care. Seeing women with disabilities as citizens with rights places a duty on both government and civil society to contribute to the realisation of those rights. Seen in this way, addressing the intersections between disability, gender and violence becomes less of an act of charitable kindness than a social imperative.

*This article written by Sadiyya Haffejee is adapted from the study ‘On the Margins: Addressing violence against women with disabilities’, which will be launched in December 2003. For further details, please contact Sadiyya Haffejee on 011 403 5650.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information




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