Rachel Wallbridge is an Advocacy and Policy Officer at CBM Australia and has a particular interest in gender issues.
Preventing and addressing violence against women and girls as well as their empowerment and participation is a topic that has always been very dear to my heart, and last year it took me to work with a Pan-African NGO in Ghana, West Africa. While I was somewhat prepared for facing gender challenges, what I saw with women and girls with disability was something I was not prepared for.
Globally, violence against women is an epidemic and ending it will require all the will, drive and savvy political manoeuvring leaders and local activists can muster. Yet violence against women and girls with disability remains a brutal and silent barrier to the fulfilment of human rights. The impact of sexual abuse and violence against women and girls with disability remains to be adequately acknowledged and discussed in many mainstream gender discussions, at both a local and international level. For example, most of the highly publicised and hashtagged Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London failed to meaningfully acknowledge the unique threats facing women and girls with disability.
Women and girls with disability are often at greater risk of violence, injury, abuse, neglect, maltreatment or exploitation. Violence against women and girls with disability not only causes physical, psychological and social pain, but it’s also a significant barrier to a woman or girl with a disability meaningfully contributing to and participating in family and community life.
The facts are sobering. Women with a disability are two to three times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women without a disability. Women with disability are also most vulnerable to abuse in their own homes, and women with an intellectual disability are particularly at risk and are also less likely to seek refuge or access redress than women with physical impairments.
Although women with disabilities experience many of the same forms of violence all women experience, the intersection of gender and disability means that violence takes on unique forms, has unique causes, and results in unique consequences. For example, people with disabilities can experience abuse such as withholding essential care and medications. Other abuses include physical, physiological, sexual or financial violence, neglect, social isolation, entrapment, degradation, detention, denial of health care, and forced sterilization and psychiatric treatment.
Women with disability face additional barriers to justice that can magnify the effects of abuse and violence. Firstly, it can be more difficult for women with disability to leave a violent or abusive situation. This could be due to being care-dependent on the abuser, not being able to take children with her, inaccessible support services and transportation to leave, being physically unable to implement an escape plan or the inability of a shelter or support service to adequately provide for her daily needs. Secondly, discrimination through the justice system means that women with disability may not be considered as reliable reporters or witnesses of crimes. In addition, prevailing social stereotypes may mean that women with disability can be dehumanised or excluded from the services.
It is important to also understand how violence and sexual abuse against women, including girls, can also be a cause of disability. For example, in the Kup region of Papua New Guinea, it has been reported that rape against young girls has caused serious injury and disability.
An important related issue magnifying the impact of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls with disability is the inaccessibility of sexual and reproductive health care. Ignorance and attitudes from both the community and individuals (including health care professionals) represent one of the main barriers for women accessing this type of health care. Society prejudices often assume women with disabilities are ‘asexual’ and are unable to manage their own sexuality and fertility. This stigma and discrimination then affects the access, level and availability of sexual and reproductive health services.
Current protections and solutions
A rights-based approach uses human rights principles and conventions as guiding frameworks, and views people with disabilities as rights-holders as opposed to passive beneficiaries. Like all people with disability, women and girls are protected under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). The UNCPRD in Article 6 acknowledges the intersection of gender and disability, saying “state parties recognize that women and girls with disabilities are subject to multiple discrimination, and in this regard shall take measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The convention also includes a specific prevision on the elimination of all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse, including their “gender-based aspects.”
While the human rights of women with disability are protected under the UNCRPD, implementation remains a significant barrier. Attitudes and social stigmas present the largest barrier yet to the fulfilment and enjoyment of all human rights for people with disability. Women and girls with a disability face a triple threat: being female, having a disability and being amongst the poorest of the poor.
A human rights approach to this issue will ensure that services including education and health are disability inclusive. This is done through a twin-track approach where disability is both mainstreamed throughout regular services as well as creating disability specific interventions that aim to increase the empowerment and participation of people with disabilities. A focus on disability inclusive development positively impacts those with disability as it helps work towards lowering the stigma and discrimination faced by people, including women.
The development of entire communities is dependent on the recognition and fulfilment of human rights of its entire people. Individuals and communities who perpetrate violence against women and girls with disability not only directly risk the health and lives of the women and girls within them, but also prevent the community from reaching its full potential.
 United Nations (2006) Convention on Rights of Persons with Disability, Preamble, Retrieved from http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml
 United Kingdom Department for International Development (2000) Disability, Poverty and Development at http://www.handicap-international.fr/bibliographie-handicap/4PolitiqueHandicap/hand_pauvrete/DFID_disability.pdf
 Stephanie Ortoleva and Hope Lewis (August 2012) “Forgotten Sisters – A Report on Violence Against Women with Disabilities: An Overview of its Nature, Scope, Causes and Consequences,Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 104-2012, 16.
 United Nations Population Fund (2013) A Deeper Silence and Pacific Sisters with Disabilities, 18.
 Ortoleva and Lewis (2012) “Forgotten Sisters,” 14.
 United Nations Population Fund (2013) A Deeper Silence, 19.
 Pacific Sisters, 19.
 Pacific Sisters Report, 17.
 World Health Organisation and United Nations Population Fund Guidance Note, “Promoting Sexual and Reproductive Health for Persons with Disabilities” 2009, 1.
 Spratt, A Deeper Silence, 18.
 Key conventions include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
 UNCRPD, 2006, Article 6(1).
 CRPD, 2006, Article 16: Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.