A more inclusive and diverse understanding of sex is bringing queer theory together with a disability-rights discourse to legitimise what was previously considered ‘deviant’ or ‘incorrect’
On August 3, 2012, a Special Rapporteur’s ‘Report on Violence Against Women with Disabilities’ was released for presentation to the United Nations General Assembly. Spanning research from countries across the world, the report states, ‘Although women with disabilities experience many of the same forms of violence that all women experience, when gender, disability and other factors intersect the violence against them takes on unique forms, has unique causes and results in unique consequences’ (p 4). Facing a double discrimination because of their dually gendered and impaired bodies (or minds), women with disabilities experience stereotypes and prejudices that ‘cultivate a psychological sense of invisibility, self-estrangement, and/or powerlessness’. The internalisation of these prejudices often leads women with disabilities who face violence – and in particular, sexual violence – to feel a sense of shame or guilt at having brought it upon themselves. Compounded with the assumed asexuality of disabled women, this multi-layered manifestation of discrimination leads to a global situation where women with disabilities often face higher levels of violence as compared to their nondisabled counterparts.
A blogger on the website Stop Street Sexual Harassment writes, ‘The first time I went out in my wheelchair my mum and I were so shocked when an aggressive man leaned over me, shook my wheelchair and quickly thrust his groin in my face as he squeezed past. There was about three feet of space in front of us he could have easily used without pressing up against me or moving my chair at all. I was 16. The second and third time a man did "the groin thing" it still bothered me…I felt dirty. I felt ashamed. I even blamed myself.’
Women walking, travelling or standing on the streets of India’s busy cities, towns and even rural villages are consistently subjected to the message that public space is not theirs. The entrance and presentation of their bodies in the public realm – very simply, by being there – is a transgression of sorts; a transgression that deserves whatever punishment is to follow. If the sexual harassment of women is somehow seen as ‘deserved’ because of the gendering of public spaces, there is a double transgression at play in the case of women with disabilities. The intersection of their impairments with their gender means that while all women face sexual harassment, disabled women face forms of harassment that either take advantage of or explicitly refer to their impairments. Visually impaired women speak of their experiences navigating city spaces, where the ‘help’ offered while crossing a road or boarding a train can – and often does – quickly transform into a sexualised grope or hold upon their bodies. Hearing-impaired working women sometimes feel their male colleagues looking at them in a sexualised way, though their exact words are always unheard.
Due to limited interactions with nondisabled women – a consequence of ‘special’ education, a dearth of accessibility-related infrastructure, the protectiveness of parents, or isolation from others due to family shame – disabled women often feel alone in their experiences of sexual harassment, or worse, believe they deserve it. Vanita, a young Mumbai-based visually impaired woman says, “I would earlier think that men harass me because I can't see. But when I spoke to other blind and sighted friends I came to know that all women face this. Only that we blind are more prone. Then I understood that I should be confident, strong, and use my wits in such a situation. That is the way to handle and react.”
As sexual violence progresses from verbal harassment to physical violence (most often assault or rape) news reports from across the country indicate the high levels of sexual assault frequently faced by women with disabilities. The shame that survivors of rape often feel after the attack may be intensified for women with disabilities, who are made to believe by their rapists that they should be ‘grateful’ for any sexual attention they receive. This leads back to the harmful myth that presumes women with disabilities are asexual and unattractive, and contributes to a sense of guilt that they have brought the attack upon themselves simply by virtue of being disabled. Furthermore, this presumption of asexuality means that women with disabilities are frequently disbelieved by those around them if they come forward about sexual abuse, because many assume that they do not qualify as sexually desirable. The well-established fact that rape is not about desire or sex, but about power, eludes even the legal system. As Saptarshi Mandal writes, ‘Court judgments show that the main reason why cases of sexual assault against disabled women fail to get the accused convicted is that the evidentiary value of their testimony is not taken seriously during the trial in the lower courts.’ Asexualised, dehumanised, and rendered voiceless by the very systems designed to protect them, women with disabilities most often suffer their experiences of sexual assault in silence – a phenomenon that the UN Special Rapporteur’s findings suggest is of global concern.
And violence, like many other things, often begins at home. A research study conducted by Mumbai-based NGO SNEHA found that of the 400 women with disabilities surveyed, 21% had experienced some form of domestic violence, but only half that number had told anyone about it. Furthermore, 43% of the women interviewed believed that some form of violence against them was justified due to their impairments. Taking place within the context of a family home where women with disabilities are considered a burden on the family or a source of shame, the violence faced by disabled women is often very much a result of their impairments. Withholding support including canes, wheelchairs, medicines and other forms of assistance are common manifestations of family-based violence that women with disabilities experience. Many families are ashamed by their disabled children (since disability is often considered to be a marker of retribution for past-life sins), and seek to isolate or hide them away from outsiders, or even from other family members. Instances of isolation are extremely high amongst disabled girls in particular, who have their movements restricted by those claiming to ‘protect’ them. It is within these tightly controlled environments that experiences of sexual abuse take place, and without the knowledge, experience or permission to approach the outside world, the majority of this abuse goes unreported. Also, women with disabilities are told that they must be grateful for the responsibility their families or husbands bear in ‘tolerating’ and ‘accommodating’ them, which leads to a further unwillingness to speak out about violence – often seen as part and parcel of living with a disability.
The Special Rapporteur’s report highlights a worldwide issue of abuse that has recently found its way into Indian national news: the forced sterilisation of women with disabilities. Fuelled by the misconception that disabled women are more likely to give birth to disabled children (despite the fact that a disabled and nondisabled woman have an equal chance of producing a disabled child) or that women with disabilities will be unable to raise children, the forced sterilisation of women with disabilities is a global phenomenon. In addition to this, the alarming rates of rape and sexual assault against women with disabilities means that the ‘protective’ measure of sterilisation is often used to prevent unwanted pregnancies arising from unwanted sex. The use of sterilisation as a means to address sexual assault is yet another terrifying comment on the ways in which the rape of all women is consistently trivialised into a ‘causes or consequences’ mentality, with little emphasis placed on the violence of the assault itself. Forced sterilisation is also often performed as a hysterectomy to serve as a solution to ‘menstrual management’, particularly in the case of girls with mental disabilities (1): another indicator of the ways in which societal constructions of the female reproductive system position women’s bodies as something to be controlled.
As disability rights groups and women’s organisations begin a stronger dialogue with one another – evidenced through initiatives such as CREA’s 2011 Count Me In! Conference (bringing together women with disabilities, lesbian women, trans women, sex workers and activists from across South Asia), more concerted and far-reaching efforts can be made to end all forms of gender-based violence. The Special Rapporteur states: ‘Women with disabilities should be allowed the opportunity and provided with the necessary accommodations to enable them to participate fully in forums discussing the empowerment of women and gender equality. Collaboration within women’s rights groups and disabled peoples organisations and with other stakeholders involved in activities to combat violence against women should be enhanced with a view towards including women with disabilities in related dialogue, strategy and institution-building processes’ (p 23). Through an understanding that violence against all women – irrespective of disability – is perpetuated through the pervasive structures of patriarchy and capitalism, disabled and nondisabled women can fight against violence together with greater strength, on common grounds, and in larger numbers.
1.This series has so far looked only at women with physical impairments, and will devote a separate article to the broad spectrum of mental disabilities, which will aim to highlight the separate laws and nuances that come into play.
(Richa Kaul Padte is a freelance writer and feminist activist living between Bombay and Goa. She was the co-author and project coordinator of www.sexualityanddisability.org, an online initiative by Point of View and CREA)
Infochange News & Features, January 2013