Around one in five women worldwide is disabled. For me growing up in Africa as a disabled female I faced a double jeopardy and was left vulnerable by the system. For disabled women gender-based violence and disability discrimination combine to create brutal barriers to wellbeing. Unfortunately, too many development programmes meant to prevent gender-based violence do not consider the unique dangers and challenges faced by women with disabilities. Without specific attention and solutions, disabled women have been left behind and at risk. ADD International, a disability rights organisation for whom I am an Ambassador, have today launched a new paper documenting the invisible violence disabled women face and ways in which it can be prevented.
Disability has its own stigma, present in every society, but in parts of Africa and Asia discrimination towards disabled people can be particularly oppressive. In areas where research and technology aren't readily available people can't access explanations for conditions. This lack of understanding can cause misconceptions about disability, with devastating consequences. People in my village believed I was cursed by God and my family I and were greatly marginalised and forced to flee from the village, for fear that we would bring bad luck to the whole community. This stigma is often internalised by disabled people, stripping millions of their aspirations and agency. I remember so often when society told me that I would not make a good wife because I was different - this defined me because I couldn't do the chores expected of a 'wife'; walk long distances to fetch water or collect firewood. This disqualification left me vulnerable but I was lucky to have a family that cared and supported me to get an education and provided me with a safe environment.
Women with disabilities around the world experience much higher levels of violence, for longer periods of time and with worse physical and mental outcomes than women without disabilities. It broke my heart to recently read about a lady who was raped and her family were afraid to report the case because of shame on two levels; one that she has cerebral Palsy, two the rape itself. Where is justice for such women who suffer such brutal violence?
Most incidents of violence are not reported to the police. Disabled women often feel trapped especially when the manipulator and abuser is someone they rely on. Disabled women and girls often have crushingly low self-esteem; many women fear that reporting incidents of abuse might lead to them being abandoned, having their children taken away, losing financial support and care, and increased isolation. Even when women do report violence they face considerable obstacles in accessing support and justice. Stigma and impairment-specific challenges - such as complications in identifying the perpetrator and communication difficulties - create multiple barriers to justice.
ADD International supports disability activists in Africa and Asia who are working to protect disabled women and girls. For Grace, who lives in a part of Uganda where some people believe that unprotected sex with a disabled woman will cure HIV, every time she leaves her house she is incredibly vulnerable. Grace is 20 years old and blind. She lives on her own in a bare room on the back streets of a slum in Gulu. She was rejected by her family and has learned to fend for herself with few resources.
"Everything I do, I do it on my own. As a child, I was buying clothes and food for myself, doing everything for myself. Now, when I am sick, there is no one to care for me. That is what always makes me roll my tears."
In some communities, it is believed that when a man has sex with a disabled woman without her consent he is doing her a favour because she is 'unwanted' goods. Disabled women are raising children in the streets where they are continually abused with no law to protect them. Dorothy, one of the disability activists we support in Gulu, says of Grace,
"She is not living in a good situation. It's a slum area. The environment predisposes her to sexual violence. Anybody can come at night and just rape her and the story ends there. No one cares. So, it's really alarming."
Luckily Grace found help with the local network of disability activists funded by ADD International. They run programmes that support disabled women by educating them on how to stay safe and train local law enforcement in how gender-based violence uniquely impacts disabled women. But there are still millions of disabled women and girls suffering abuse each day.
This Must Change.
Development agencies, power holders and service providers need to build into their programmes the right protection for disabled women. It will require sustained global focus, momentum and action. But if we are serious about fulfilling the global aspiration to 'leave no one behind' then it must be done.
You can read ADD International's new reporthere.
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