International Women’s Day: “Who Can Save Me?” – Domestic Violence and Disability

Every year since the early 1900s, March 8th has been observed as International Women’s Day. A global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women while also recognizing the work that needs to be done to ensure every woman is able to live a life of dignity. Although there has been much progress in achieving gender parity over the last century, there are still many women fighting for equality around the world and fostering social connectedness through these efforts.  International Women’s Day offers the opportunity for reflection, advocacy, and action to address the unique circumstances women face around the globe.

As a part of this conversation, and as a way to showcase the harsh realities many women are battling even today, Human Rights Watch has published commentary on the issue of domestic violence against women with disabilities. “According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner; but women with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to experience some form of domestic violence.” This statistic highlights the importance of standing in solidarity with women who are experiencing isolation due to these circumstances and ensuring that governments, United Nations agencies, donors, and disabled persons’ organizations are working together to address these issues head on.

Below you can read the full commentary:

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“He beat me because of my disability. He said to others that I was useless, could not make love or cook.”

This is how Angela, a 20-year-old woman born with a physical disability, described her husband when I met her in northern Uganda some years ago. When Angela complained to authorities she was advised to stay with her husband. After four months of abuse, she left him.

I was reminded of Angela’s story recently, when I saw a short French film highlighting the stories of eight women with disabilities who are survivors of domestic violence. One woman living with Down syndrome, Anne, worries that no one will believe that her husband and father-in-law physically and sexually abused her. As the segment fades, she asks, “Who can save me?”

Unfortunately, as we mark International Women’s Day today, women and girls with disabilities around the world continue to echo Anne’s question.

According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner; but women with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to experience some form of domestic violence.

Women and girls with disabilities often rely on relationships that leave them open to exploitation and abuse from the early stages of their lives, and resources in easy-to-read formats just aren’t widely available.

When the shame women often feel as a result of domestic violence is coupled with the stigma of having a disability, reporting abuses can seem impossible. Just last month, a woman with a psychosocial disability in Kolkata, India told me how the police refused to file her sexual assault complaint: “They said to me, ‘She’s mental. Why should I pay attention to her?’”

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Because she is entitled to the same rights as other women.

And governments need to ensure women and girls with disabilities have access to services and to justice. Governments should also make sure police get training on how to take testimony from women and girls with disabilities – and to do so with respect. Governments, United Nations agencies, donors, and disabled persons’ organizations should work together to make prevention and protection services accessible and inclusive. And key to the effectiveness of these efforts is consultation with the disability community, particularly women and girls with disabilities themselves.

We’ll then have a better answer to Anne’s urgent question, “Who can save me?”