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Protecting women with disabilities from violence

By Swagata Raha

Violence against women with disabilities can range from neglect to physical abuse to denying them even the traditional roles of marriage and childbearing. The Indian legal framework has to be strengthened to bring it in line with international legislations on the rights of disabled women

Concerns of women with disabilities continue to remain marginal in India. They have neither been espoused by the feminist movement nor the disability movement and have largely remained “hidden” and “silent”. (1) Women with disabilities face discriminatory treatment vis-à-vis women and men without disabilities, and men with disabilities.  

According to the Indian Census of 2001, women constitute 42.457% of the total population of persons with disabilities in India. (2) Despite the numbers, their voices remain unheard and the existing legal framework fails to address specific problems faced by women with disabilities. 

Forms of discrimination 

Women with disabilities have been consistently denied the traditional roles assigned to women. It is assumed that they are incapable of undertaking family responsibilities or obtaining gainful employment. (3) In India, where female foeticide is rampant and the girl-child is unwelcome, a disabled girl-child is at the receiving end of even more contempt and neglect.  

From the time they are children, persons with disabilities are mostly socialised into dependence, requiring constant monitoring or supervision and never encouraged to take care of themselves or think independently. Such dependence increases their vulnerability and is used to justify their inability to found a family. They are also regarded as “asexual”, leading to the repression of their sexual identity. Anita Ghai, a leading disability rights activist, notes that while she was growing up she was, most unusually, allowed to share a room with her male cousins, thus prompting the conclusion that she was “desexualised”. (4)   

Such treatment, apart from curtailing sexual expression in women with disabilities is also dangerous because significant information relating to menstrual management and sexual reproduction is withheld, as parents and caretakers fear that their disabled daughter will be unable to comprehend it and may instead cause self-harm.  

Lack of information is heightened by the fact that peer group learning is also very limited amongst disabled women as they are less likely to be sent to school. The social role (or the absence of a role) ascribed to women with disabilities, in conjunction with the stereotypes that exist, contributes to their vulnerability and leads to violation of rights.  

Need for gender-sensitive disability laws   

The Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 (PWD Act) governs all issues of disability. But it is silent on the discrimination and violence faced by women that differentiates their situation from men with disabilities.  

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (hereinafter referred to as the Disability Convention), the first internationally binding instrument on disability rights, acknowledges in its preamble, “the difficult conditions faced by persons with disabilities who are subject to multiple or aggravated forms of discrimination on the bases of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, property, birth, age or other status”.  

It also recognises “that women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation” and emphasises “the need to incorporate a gender perspective in all efforts to promote the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities”.  

The substantive provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities pertaining to women with disabilities is summarised below:  

  • Article 3 (g) – Principle of equality between men and women.
  • Article 6 – Responsibility of the State Party to recognise the multiple discrimination faced by girls and women with disabilities and undertake measures to “ensure the full and equal enjoyment by them of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”, and to enable the realisation of the rights by ensuring “full development, advancement and empowerment of women”.
  • Article 16 – Protection from exploitation, violence and abuse. Ensuring of “gender sensitive support”; providing of “information and education on how to avoid, recognise and report instances of exploitation”; formulating women-centric policies and legislations to address violence, its identification, investigation, and punishment.
  • Article 28 – Ensuring access of all, “in particular women and girls with disabilities…to social protection programmes and poverty reduction programmes”.

At a minimum, India must comply with these core obligations contained in the Disability Convention. This would entail legislative enactments and amendments to existing laws to give them a “gendered perspective”.  

The PWD Act mentioned above is the principal legal instrument concerning the limited rights available to persons with disabilities and the obligations of the State. The Act fails to impose mandatory obligations on the appropriate government and leaves the realisation of opportunities to the discretion of the various state governments. The implementation of provisions pertaining to non-discrimination and physical access depends on the state government’s “limits of …economic capacity and development”. (5) 

While a complete revision of the existing legal framework is warranted, in this article emphasis is placed on the need to adopt a gender-sensitive approach while reforming the laws.   

Comprehending “violence” against women with disabilities 

Violence against disabled women is a silent act because in a majority of cases women fail to realise they are victims, or fail to communicate the act of violence. Even if it is communicated, seldom does it inspire belief. In most cases the perpetrators are not brought to book. There is also the fear that reporting the abuse could snap bonds with the caretakers. Studies on violence against people with disabilities conducted by Sobsey and Doe in 1991 in Canada revealed that about 81.7% of the victims are women, that women with disabilities are “one-and-a-half times as likely to have been sexually abused as women without disabilities” and that 90.8% of perpetrators are men, of whom 56% are known to the victim. (6)  

‘Violence against women’ has been defined in Article 1 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993 (7) to mean “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” 

This definition provides for less explicit forms of violence such as psychological harm or abuse. It also provides for instances of violence in the domestic sphere. The definition has been interpreted to encompass “active violence” that entails “physical, emotional, sexual or economical abuse” and “passive violence” that entails “physical and emotional neglect”. (8)

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW) defines discrimination against women and while it does not directly refer to violence, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in General Recommendation No 19 explains that “gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions, is discrimination” within Article 1, CEDAW. (9)   

Criminalising violence against women with disabilities 

Sexual assault

In the case of Tulshidas Kanolkar v State of Goa (10) the Supreme Court of India expressed anguish at the repeated rape of a mentally challenged woman and observed that in such a case, apart from physical violence, there is also “exploitation of her helplessness”. Justice Arijit Pasayat drew attention to the fact that while Section 376(2)(f) of the Indian Penal Code prescribes higher penalty for rape of a woman below 12 years of age, it is exigent on the legislature to prescribe a higher penalty for the rape of a mentally challenged woman whose mental age may be less than 12 years.   

The National Commission for Women in its draft of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2006 attempts to provide specially for sexual assault of women with disabilities. Section 376(2)(i) of the proposed Bill imposes a minimum term of ten years imprisonment that may extend to life, and a fine for the commission of sexual assault on a “person suffering from mental and physical disability”. Presumption of the absence of consent is also proposed under Section 114A of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (11) that shall be invoked in the above case, shifting the burden of proof on the accused.  

Section 376(2)(i) is absurd because in the event that a woman with only mental disabilities or only physical disabilities, and not both, is sexually assaulted, this section will not apply. Also the word "suffering" is objectionable. As the Bill is in the draft form, it must be revised to read as follows: Section 376(2) “Whoever commits sexual assault on a person with mental or physical disabilities shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for term which shall not be less than ten years but which may be for life and shall also be liable to fine.”  

The Bill also fails to provide for procedural amendments that will enable women with disabilities to easily access the complaints mechanism. The architectural and communication barriers of the existing system have been exposed from time to time. An instance in this regard is the rape of a deaf girl in a police van in Kolkata, West Bengal, in September 2000. (12) She could not communicate the details of the incident and the medical team refused to accept her statement. They failed to take into account that the girl had not received any training in how to communicate and had developed a sign language of her own.  Thus, in the absence of appropriate infrastructure and an accessible complaints mechanism, increased penalty for sexual assault will yield no substantive outcomes.  

Enforced sterilisations

In 1994, forced hysterectomies were conducted on several mentally challenged women between 18 and 35 years of age at the Sassoon General Hospital in Pune because they were incapable of maintaining menstrual hygiene and hospital staff found it a strain on their resources and time. Consent was obtained from the guardians and an intrusive and irrevocable surgery, that was not medically indicated, was carried out. Anita Ghai draws attention to the fact that the hospital made no effort to maintain basic menstrual hygiene as the women were “prevented from wearing pajamas with drawstrings or sanitary napkins with belts” as it was feared that they may use these to commit suicide. (13) The level of negligence and baseless nature of this fear is clear as “boys were issued pajamas complete with drawstrings that could be used as a noose much more easily than any sanitary napkin”. (14)   

In Dr Anant Phadke and others v State of Maharashtra (15) the petitioners urged the Bombay High Court to restrain the state from taking the decision to perform such an intrusive surgery. The state cited reasons of inability to maintain personal hygiene and danger of pregnancies arising from sexual assault to support the decision to sterilise. The mass hysterectomies were put on hold owing to remonstrations from women activists; however, hysterectomies had already been performed on 11 girls in the age-group of 13-35. (16) The petition detailed the pathetic living conditions and shortage of staff at the Shirur Home, where the girls lived. The hysterectomies were performed for convenience and were not medically necessitated.  

Clearly, the concerns of disabled women remain marginal and are complicated by a failure to comprehend the human rights dimension of issues concerning the disabled and in particular the issue of enforced sterilisation. This is evident from the reaction of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission, which when approached by the father of a 17-year-old girl with mental and physical disabilities, who sought permission to remove her ovaries, was turned away as the Commission “cannot decide on an ethical issue”. (17)  

Parents of children with mental disabilities need to appreciate that mental disabilities can be of varying gravity and that physical changes occur at a normal pace even though the mental faculties are not as developed. Children with mental disabilities undergo mood swings and other emotional changes like all other normal adolescents. (18)  

A common fear amongst parents is that upon reaching puberty their daughter will be unable to comprehend the changes occurring in her body and owing to her mental disability could be an easy target of sexual exploitation. (19) The consequences in the form of a pregnancy will spell difficulties.  

Experts and activists dealing with persons with mental disabilities stress the need to teach them how to deal with their sexual feelings and control them or express them in an appropriate manner. Parents normally withhold information and tend to over-protect their mentally disabled child. Shampa Sengupta, Director of the Sruti Disability Centre in Kolkata stresses that just as a child with mental disabilities is taught to take a bath, wear clothes, eat and go about her daily tasks, she needs to be taught how to handle her menstruation and cope with her sexuality. This is also connected to the “silence” of violence as often girls with mental disabilities fail to inform their parents of molestations or sexual advances. Appropriate information operates as a defence against violence. (20)      

Protection from sexual abuse as a ground is untenable, as sterilisation does not safeguard against sexual assault or harassment in any way and can only guarantee that a pregnancy will not arise in case sexual intercourse occurs. The fear of rape or an undesirable pregnancy is dominant amongst all parents of women with mental disabilities and is often what prompts them to consider hysterectomy as a solution.   

The right to reproduction is seen to be dangerous for mentally disabled women as it is assumed that they lack maturity and intellect to be able to take care of another person. The fear of transmission of the disability is also very common.  

Persons with disabilities are entitled to the right to life, right to equality and non-discrimination, right to health, right to reproduction and sexuality and the right to found a family contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (UDHR); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 (ICESCR) and fundamental rights provisions in the Indian Constitution. Enforced sterilisation blatantly impinges upon the free exercise and enjoyment of each of the above enumerated rights and is not a mere “ethical issue” but a grave human rights concern.       

Reproductive rights

The right of men and women of full age to marry and found a family is provided under several international laws and covenants, including the UN Minimum Standard Rules for Equalisation of Opportunities which calls for governments to promote the full participation of persons with disabilities in family life, their right to personal integrity and ensure that laws do not discriminate against persons with disabilities with respect to sexual relationships, marriage and parenthood. (21)  

The PWD Act, 1995 is distressingly deficient in this regard. It overlooks the family rights of disabled persons along with the need for protection from abuse. If also fails to provide for the differential experiences of women with disabilities.  

In order to help parents better appreciate what would be in the best interests of their mentally challenged daughter there is a need to organise training workshops and discussions for sharing of technical information. Medical experts can explain the consequences of sterilisation and suggest other less intrusive methods such as contraception measures to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  

Informed consent

In the case of mentally challenged women decisions are often made on their behalf by their parents, relatives, guardians or doctors. The right to physical integrity is recognised as a basic human right. With respect to medical procedures it would imply that consent must be obtained from the person who is to be subject to medical treatment. As per the Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illnesses and the Improvement of Mental Health Care, 1991 consent must be “informed” in that the onus is on the doctor to explain in detail the benefits, risks and dangers, the possible side-effects, the chance of success and the consequences of performing and not performing the procedure as also all the alternatives. (22) Consent must be voluntary and can be so regarded only when a person after having fully understood the irreversibility of the operation and the psychological and other consequences of it agrees to undergo sterilisation.   

Principle 11(12) prohibits sterilisation as a treatment for mental illness. Further, it permits a “major medical or surgical procedure” if it is necessary in the best interest of the patient’s health and the informed consent of the patient has been obtained. (23) Where informed consent cannot be obtained the procedure must be subject to an independent review after which it can be carried out. (24)   

The dominant legal assumption is that persons with mental disabilities are incapable of consent and cannot therefore enter into contracts or marry. One of the conditions for a valid marriage under Section 5(ii)(a) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is that the parties should not be incapable of consenting owing to unsoundness of mind. Decisions regarding medical treatment are taken by the guardians and caretakers of persons with mental disabilities. For instance, under Section 4(a) of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act (MTPA), pregnancy of a minor or a “mentally ill” woman of any age can only be terminated after obtaining the consent of her guardian in writing.  In other cases, the consent of the pregnant woman is required and not that of her guardian.  

There is always the danger that decisions may not be in the best interests of the patient but may serve the convenience of the care providers. Their interests may override the rights and entitlement of the disabled woman. The Forum for Medical Ethics is of the view that its is difficult to observe the principle of informed consent in the case of a woman with mental disabilities and that her parents or guardians will have to take decisions on her behalf after the medical procedures and their implications are explained to them, and their consent must be obtained in writing. (25) The Forum recommends that the process of explanation and recording of consent be observed by an unconnected witness. (26) This will help safeguard against subtle coercion by institutions that recommend hysterectomy for their own convenience.

Judicial decisions in other jurisdictions 

In Re D. (A Minor)(Wardship: Sterilisation,a case before the family division of the high court in England, (27) involved a discussion on whether non-therapeutic sterilisation of an 11-year-old girl with mental disabilities could be conducted based on the medical opinion of a doctor. The doctor concurred with the mother that the girl be sterilised on reaching puberty, but a social worker and the headmaster of the girl’s school disagreed as they felt that such an operation would be “irreversible and permanent” and would have an impact on her future. They held that the girl had shown signs of improvement and may be considerably better with time. Independent medical experts consulted by the court also disagreed, as there were no medical grounds for the procedure. The judge therefore ruled that the procedure should not go forward on the doctor’s “sole clinical judgment”. (28) 

In Secretary, Department of Health and Community Services v JWB and SMB (29) the Australian High Court held that decisions to sterilise a mentally disabled person have to be submitted to the court for its authorisation and the court will decide on the basis of the principle of best interest of the child. The court ruled that sterilisation “must be a treatment of last resort” where “no alternative and less drastic treatment would be appropriate and effective.” (30) The decision of the court was lauded for recognising that children with disabilities had the right to physical integrity. (31)   

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) of Australia elaborates two essential “criteria” on the basis of which the court can authorise sterilisation: the “generally binding authorising criteria” where it is necessary for “preservation of life, prevention of grave illness or correction of some serious malfunction”, the surgery will be deemed to be in the best interests of the child. (32)  

The Commission stipulates six circumstances (or a combination) under which sterilisation can “generally never” be in the best interests of the child: eugenics, prevention of sexual abuse, contraception, menstrual management, convenience of care providers and where operation is not the last resort. (33)  


In order that India discharge its obligations under the Disability Convention, the following measures are imperative. These recommendations primarily relate to protecting women with disabilities from violence.  

Persons with disabilities, especially women, should be able to access complaints and redressal mechanisms. In the absence of appropriate infrastructure and an accessible complaints mechanism, increasing the penalty for sexual assault will yield no substantive outcomes.  

All police training schools must introduce modules on disability sensitisation. Existing members of the force should also undergo such sensitisation, which can be conducted by recognised non-governmental organisations working on disability issues. Not only should a female officer handle a complaint of sexual assault, but she must also be aware of the problems of access and communication that a woman or girl with disability endures.   

In the absence of procedural changes, the substantive protection against violence will remain ineffective. 

Recommended legislative and executive initiatives

While formulating legislation in order to implement the obligations under the Disability Convention, the following should be borne in mind:  

  • All persons with disabilities are entitled to human rights and their inherent dignity must be respected at all times.
  • Disability must be added to the list of grounds on the basis of which discrimination is impermissible under Article 15 of the Constitution.
  • By way of legislation, we should not merely declare rights and entitlements but stipulate in detail the mechanisms by which the rights can be realised.

The following rights of women with disabilities must be clearly recognised:

  • Right not to be tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
  • Right against forced or non-consensual sterilisation or without informed consent.
  • Right to be protected against all forms of violence, whether in private or public, and sexual harassment at workplace.
  • Right to found a family.
  • Right to reproduction.
  • Right to adequate protection from surgical or drug trial interventions, especially in case of institutionalised women.
  • Right to approach the court of law, directly or through a friend or institution, for a violation of any of the above-mentioned rights.
  • Right to accessible legal mechanisms of seeking remedies for violation of rights.

Forced or non-consensual sterilisations must be criminalised. Such intrusive surgeries amount to a violation of the right to life and physical integrity. The victim of forced sterilisation must be duly compensated.   

Labour laws should be amended to provide for flexible working hours and leave for parents of children with disabilities or care-givers of other disabled family members. Liability must be imposed on day care centres, day schools, government or private institutions including hospitals that attempt to or commit non-consensual sterilisations or do so without having obtained the informed consent of the disabled patient.  

There is also a need to closely monitor the condition of State-run homes housing persons with disabilities to ensure that their rights are not being infringed upon. Instead of the courts, a statutory body can be constituted to consider the decision to sterilise made by parents or State institutions. The authority must comprise medical experts, human rights activists, lawyers, experts having at least 10 years of experience in dealing with mentally disabled persons, psychologists and teachers of special schools. The guidelines formulated by the HREOC, Australia, should serve as a baseline for the authority. Appeal from the decision should lie in a court of law.  

Relying upon Rule 15(2) of the Standard Rules on the Equalisation of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities, 1993, which recommends legislative action in order to “remove conditions that may adversely affect the lives of persons with disabilities, including harassment and victimisation”, (34) necessary legislation must be enacted to clarify the legal issues arising from sterilisation. 

(Swagata Raha is BA LLB (Hons), National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata and is presently working as Lecturer in Law at Christ College of Law, Bangalore)


  1. This was first urged in Social Development Division, United Nations ESCAP, ‘Hidden Sisters: Women and Girls with Disabilities in the Asian and Pacific Region’, (ST/ESCAP/1548), at published in pursuance of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Disabled Persons, 1993-2002.
  2. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, Census of India, 2001 Table 1: Distribution of the disabled by sex and residence – 2001 (India, States and Union Territories)
  3. See Michelle Fine & Adrienne Asch, ‘Disabled Women: Sexism without the Pedestal’ in Mary Jo Deegan & Nancy A Brooks (eds), Women and Disability: The Double Handicap, (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1985) 6.
  4. Laura Hershey, ‘An Interview with Dr Anita Ghai, One of India’s Advocates for Rights of Disabled Women’, Disability World Issue No.8 May-June 2001
  5. Sections 44, 45 and 46 of the Persons with Disabilities Act.
  6. Lesley Chenoweth, ‘Invisible Acts: Violence Against Women with Disabilities’, 1993 Findings of the study done by Dick Sobsey and T.Doe, ‘Patterns of sexual abuse and assault’ Journal of Sexuality and Disability, 9(3), 243-259 have been obtained from this source.
  7. General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993
  8. M.Iglesias, G.Gil et al., ‘Violence and Disabled Women’, METIS project, European Union DAPHNE Initiative, 1998
  9. Para 6, General Recommendation No. 19 (11th Session, 1992) Violence Against Women
  10. AIR 2004 SC 978.
  11. Proposed Section 114A. Presumption as to absence of consent in certain prosecutions for sexual assault. – In a prosecution for sexual assault under (a) of clause(b) or clause (c) or clause (d) or clause (e) or clause (g) or clause (h)(i) or (j) of sub-section (2) of section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860) where sexual intercourse by the accused is proved and the question is whether it was without the consent of the other person alleged to have been sexually assaulted and such other person states in his/her evidence before the court that he/she did not consent, the court shall presume that he/she did not consent.
  12. The girl, arrested by the Watgunje police for theft on September 9, 2000, was allegedly raped by two police constables and a driver in the prison van when she was being driven to jail. This information was obtained from Ms Shampa Sengupta, Director Shruti Disability Centre, Kolkata.
  13. Anita Ghai, ‘Disabled Women: An Excluded Agenda of Indian Feminism’ Hypatia vol.17, no.3 (Summer 2002) 57
  14. Id
  15. Writ Petition No, 1527 of 1994. Copy of the petition can be accessed on
  16. Para 4, Writ Petition No, 1527 of 1994.
  17. Debashis Konar, ‘Rape fear sends father into tizzy’ Calcutta Times, Times of India, September 24, 2004
  18. Mary McCormack, A Mentally Handicapped Child in the Family -- A guide for Parents (London: Constable & Co, 1978) 100
  19. This is based on the author’s interaction with a group of parents of mentally challenged girls in Kolkata which was initiated by Ms Shampa Sengupta, director of Sruti Disability Centre, in 2005.
  20. Sol Gordon and Judith Gordon, Raising your Child Responsibly in a Sexually Permissive Society, 2nd Ed (Adams Media Corporation, 1999)
  21. Para 5, General Comment No. 19: ‘Protection of the family, the right to marriage and equality of the spouses’ (Art. 23): 27/07/90. CCPR General Comment No 19. (General Comments)
  22. Principle 11(2), Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illnesses and the Improvement of Mental Health Care, GA res. 46/119, 46 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 3) at 189, UN Doc. A/46/49 (1991).
  23. Principle 11(13), id.
  24. Id.
  25. Forum for Medical Ethics, ‘Suggested guidelines for hysterectomy in mentally handicapped women’ Medical Ethics
  26. Id.
  27. [1976] 2 W.L.R 279
  28. In Re D. (A Minor)(Wardship: Sterilisation) [1976] 2 W.L.R 279
  29. Secretary, Department of Health and Community Services v. J.W.B and S.M.B (Marion’s Case) (1992) 175 CLR 218 F.C. 92/010
  30. Id.
  31. Susan Brady, John Britton & Sonia Grover, ‘The Sterilisation of Girls and Young Women in Australia: Issues and Progress’,
  32. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Outline of Submissions in Respect of Appropriate Judicial Guidelines, Para 2.1
  33. Id at para 2.2.
  34. United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with disabilities, 1993 

InfoChange News & Features, May 2009