Written by Rosemary Kayess
December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD is the first human rights treaty of the 21st Century, setting out a contemporary agenda of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the context of disability.
The fundamental premise of CRPD is that disability is just one aspect of the human condition. Acknowledging that people are not defined by just one personal characteristic, that we all experience discrimination in a multiplicity of ways. A fundamental tenet of the CRPD is its universalism, that of modification of the social norm to reflect human diversity. It is a normative frame that is representative of the actual lived experience of the human condition. The CRPD sets standards for society where politics, policy, and law need to be fashioned around a complete, comprehensive vision of the human experience. It is only through such a vision that we are to meet the needs of real-life subjects and address human rights violations such as violence against women.
The CRPD’s approach is a significant shift away from the prevailing social conceptualisation of disability that reflects a deficit approach; where disability is viewed as a problem, an individualised issue where vulnerable individuals require care, treatment and protection within a social welfare regime as a way of dealing with their ‘special needs’. This individual deficit approach to disability has reinforced notions of disability as difference thereby ‘othering’ these individuals and has included the standard response of law and public policy to focus on separate parallel institutions and services in isolation to mainstream systems, such as residential care facilities, special education, sheltered employment and justice diversion measures. These policy responses have been central to inherent systemic disadvantage and ongoing violations of fundamental human rights. People with disability are stripped of legal personhood, institutionalised in closed facilities and exposed to violence and abuse.
It is time to bring a human rights approach to disability gender violence – a type of violence that is routinely ignored or downplayed. Regardless of setting or context, it is often conceptualised as abuse, neglect or service incidents, or a workplace issue to be dealt with administratively – rather than as violence or a criminal act. This is particularly the case in institutional and service settings where violence is continually excused or covered up, or at worst, normalised. Critically, the effect is a lack of recognition of disability gender violence across the legal and service systems, resulting in women and girls with disability having less legal protection and access to justice.
It is currently estimated that the incidence of violence against people with a disability is at least 3 times higher than the general population. This violence is less likely to be reported, investigated or prosecuted with much higher rates for women with disability, particularly more marginalised women such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women with disability.
There is a growing body of evidence of the nature and extent of disability gender violence. Violence against women and girls with disability in Australia is far more extensive than violence among the general population, and violence perpetrated against women and girls with disability is significantly more diverse in nature and more severe than for women in general. Compared to their peers, women with disabilities experience significantly higher levels of all forms of violence more intensely and frequently, and by a greater number of perpetrators. Women with disabilities experience violence over a longer period of time, resulting in more severe injuries, and have limited pathways to safety.
In the Australian context, evidence shows that more than 70% of women with disabilities have been victims of violent sexual encounters. Data suggests 90% of women with an intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse, with more than two-thirds (68%) having been sexually abused before they turn 18 years of age. The rates of sexual victimisation of women with disability range from four to 10 times higher than for other women. More than a quarter of rape cases reported by females are perpetrated against women with a disability. Women with a disability are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disability. One in four women with disability who access support services experienced violence. Eighty-five (85%) of women with mental health impairment report feeling unsafe during hospitalisation, 67% per cent report experiencing sexual or other forms of harassment during hospitalisation
The multiple forms and complex nature of disability gender violence in Australia currently sits in a legislative, policy and service response vacuum. It is not afforded the same protections and responses as others forms violence and women and girls with disability have little or no avenues for recourse. Disability gender violence is significantly more diverse in nature and more severe than for women in general. Their experiences of violence last over a longer period of time, and more severe injuries result from that violence.
Narrow conceptual understandings of domestic and family violence as spousal and/or intimate partner violence obscures disability gender violence, marginalising the violence experienced by women with disability from policies and service responses designed to address and prevent violence against women. These narrow policy frameworks for domestic violence, ignore the experience of disability and fail to encompass the range of settings in which women with disability live and access.
Disability gender violence traverses traditional domestic settings including private and family dwellings but large numbers of women with disability reside in and receive support in a range of institutional and/or service settings, such as group homes, supported residential facilities, boarding houses, psychiatric and mental health community care facilities, residential aged care facilities, hostels, hospitals, prisons, foster care, respite facilities, cluster housing, congregate care, special schools and out-of-home care services. Further policy definitions fail to capture the range of relationships and various dimensions of disability gender violence, which may include the relationships they have with support workers and co-residents with disability.
Australia is far from unique. Like gender-based violence generally, disability gender violence is a widespread persistent devastating human rights violation across the world. It is only when we use normative frameworks such as the CRPD that embrace disability as an inherent part of the human condition to inform policy will we have the recognition and understanding of disability gender violence that we can eliminate violence against all women regardless of personal characteristics.
I would like to knowledge work of Women with Disability Australia and Disabled People’s Organisations Australia who’s extensive, comprehensive and rigorous work has informed much of my analysis for this blog.
Rosemary Kayess is a Committee member, UN Committee for United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Interim Director Disability Innovation Institute, UNSW, Sydney.