International Women’s Day

Women with disabilities are twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence as other women, according to the United Nations.


Handicap International is highlighting this issue at the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. “Women with disabilities often face double discrimination," said Muriel Mac-Seing, Handicap International's Technical Advisor on gender based violence. "It's our duty to bring this injustice to an end.”

Although women with disabilities represent 19.2% of the global female population and often live in precarious conditions, their needs are rarely taken into account. Yet the few studies devoted to disability and gender-based violence all highlight the vulnerability of women and girls with disabilities to various forms of violence. Eighty per cent of women with disabilities living in rural Asia, for example, are unable to meet their own needs, according to the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and are heavily dependent on family and friends. 

Handicap International's field experience also shows that women and girls with disabilities are at a heightened risk of violence and remain excluded from basic services, such as education, health, work and social support.

People with disabilities are 130% more likely to be survivors of violence than people without disabilities. It is also widely acknowledged that women with disabilities are at heightened risk of sexual violence and twice as likely to experience domestic violence. “Women are much more likely to experience sexual violence if they have an impairment because they generally live in closer contact with adult members of their family, on whom they are often dependent, and because social and cultural stereotypes dictate that women and girls do not have the right to manage their own sexual and reproductive health,” said Mac-Seing.

“For example, women with disabilities living in rural areas of Africa, are often sexually abused and their families, who often know about it or are involved in such abuse, stay silent about it due to fear of further discrimination and stigmatization. They start from the premise that women and girls with disabilities do not have rights and cannot refuse to engage in a sexual act, even if a man is drunk, aggressive or HIV positive. Sexually transmitted infection such as HIV and unwanted pregnancies are major consequences of gender-based violence for women with disabilities.

“Sometimes women and girls with disabilities are forcibly sterilized and pushed into terminating pregnancies, based on the paternalistic reasoning that ‘it's for their own good',” Mac-Seing added. One study conducted by the United Nations has revealed that in Orissa, India, 6% of women with disabilities have been sterilized against their will. 

Discrimination and stigmatization“Women and girls with disabilities are at risk of more than direct violence,” Mac-Seing said. “They are often excluded from basic services, such as health and education, or do not have the right to work.” A Handicap International study in 2012 in the Western Province of Rwanda revealed a vicious spiral at work: women who are prevented from exercising their right to attend school are more likely to remain ignorant of their rights and to put up with degrading and violent treatment. Their economic vulnerability, which is linked to their gender and disability, also creates an environment in which they are more likely to be ill-treated, leading to further impoverishment of affected people with disabilities as well as their families.

Taking Action
“Combating violence against women and girls with disabilities must be one of the United Nation's top priorities,” says Mac-Seing, who is scheduled to speak on behalf of the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) on March 11, at the 57th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. The IDDC will use this opportunity to recommend a number of recommendations, including equal access to gender-based violence related services. “All too often service providers working on gender-based violence do not gather specific information on people with disabilities and do not have the skills to provide an appropriate and accessible response to women and girls with disabilities,” explains Mac-Seing.

This is also the case in disaster situations. “During disaster situations, for example in refugee camps, women with disabilities are extremely vulnerable,” explains Hélène Robin, manager of Handicap International's emergency programs. “Not only are services poorly adapted to their specific needs (they cannot move around and do not have access to food distributions or latrines, for example), they are also at a heightened risk of violence. This is why Handicap International ensures that vulnerable people, including pregnant and isolated women, have access to care services and distributions to avoid their situation getting even worse.”

“Moreover, women with disabilities in emergency situations are most likely to suffer from intellectual, sensory or psychological impairments. Women who are deaf and mute, for example, cannot call for help, when necessary, or express their needs, because they are unlikely to be fully understood (which makes them priority targets for support). At the same time, women who are the victims of violence or abuse, but who have an intellectual impairment or mental health problems, may be considered to be unreliable witnesses. These women therefore need particular protection during emergency situations.”