Disability and violence are global human rights issues that cut across gender, race, age, sexuality, geographical, religious, socio-economic and cultural boundaries. They are socially produced and culturally constructed, and can manifest at different or multiple, generational locations over a person’s life-course (childhood, youth, adulthood and older age). Disability and violence have a bi-directional relationship in that the onset of impairment can be caused by being exposed to violence, or violent actions by a perpetrator can be stimulated by a victim’s impairment.
While both were once considered to be private problems hidden from public view, increasingly they are recognised as issues that call for public attention and intervention. Moreover, both are gendered, and both begin early in life. Here, we focus on what we term ‘disablist gender-based violence’, that is, violence that is specific to being disabled and that is targeted at women and girls because they are women and girls. It is, in effect, a double dose of discrimination.
Across the globe, the risk of violence for children with impairments is up to four times greater than their non-disabled contemporaries. Violence against disabled children tends to be more severe than for non-disabled children, while severity is correlated with the impairment type. They are likely to experience more than one type of violence across their lifetime starting from an early age.
From infanthood, disabled people are continuously reminded of their ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ in society. There is now indubitable evidence that there are considerable gendered risks that lead to disablist gender-based violence. Accounting for gender, significantly more disabled girls than disabled boys are likely to experience sexual abuse, while the opposite is true for physical abuse.
The high proportion of disabled women and girls exposed to and experiencing violence during their lives is associated with a number of factors, starting with the societal contention that the life of a disabled child is a wrongful life and an economic burden to the family and society. The objectification and manipulation of the disabled female body have been suggested to create opportunities for violence.
Disablist gender-based violence includes actions that simultaneously increase the powerfulness of the perpetrators and the powerlessness of the disabled women and girls. Although disabled women and girls can experience the same types of abuse as their non-disabled contemporaries – physical, sexual and emotional – they are likely to be subjected to additional abuse triggered by the objectification and manipulation we mentioned earlier. Moreover, abuse may be perpetrated by people who are supposed to ‘care’ for them, such as personal assistants or carers in institutions, parents and health care workers.
Into adulthood, over half of all disabled women have experienced physical abuse, compared with one third of non-disabled women. Nearly 80% of disabled women have been victims of psychological and physical violence, and are at a greater risk of sexual abuse than non-disabled women. Traditionally, as a group, disabled women and girls have been exposed to disempowering messages about their reproductive choices from early childhood, for example having limited exposure to sexual knowledge and opportunities while growing up.
This arises from them being excluded from the cultural spaces where such exchanges take place or being constrained by high levels of surveillance. Disabled women have been discouraged and sometimes physically prevented from exercising their reproductive capacities and becoming parents. They are subject to social infantilisation, being conceptualised as weak, passive and dependent. The disabled female body has not been seen as beautiful or sexual, but as fragile, weak and asexual. Moreover, the disabled female has historically been objectified asexually by media, medical and legal discourses; conceptualised as undesirable sexual partners or mothers.
The fact that disabled women and girls may have to depend on others for basic personal and social needs, not only places them at greater risk of abuse compared to non-disabled females, but also reduces opportunities to disclose. Professionals may not necessarily recognise scars of disabled child abuse and misdiagnose them as being related to the child’s impairment. Such diagnostic overshadowing can thwart opportunities for child protection and support and exacerbate marginalisation and risk to disabled women and girls. Moreover, limited violence prevention support and intervention for disabled females at different points of their life can leave them feeling disempowered and doubting their rights to protection and support.
In conclusion, gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls is a major human rights issue that blights the lives of millions worldwide. This risk is greater for disabled women and girls and is less likely to be recognised among policy makers and health service providers. Disabled women and girls are more likely to encounter barriers to support and protection for a number of reasons, connected to the overall pattern of disablism in society.
The evidence suggests that indicators of violence can be overlooked by practitioners who see the disability first, rather than the woman or girl as a person. The reality is that many disabled women have intersectional identities – they may identify as homosexual, identify as transgender, are of minority ethnic or religious background, and are of different ages – which contributes to unique experiences of oppression and disadvantage.
Across the globe, there is a dearth of voices and experiences of disabled women and girls in mainstream research, policy and practice in relation to violence, victimisation, protection and prevention. The inclusion of these hidden voices will not only help achieve the goal “nothing about us without us”. It will also raise an awareness of the need to include disablist violence in official definitions of gender-based violence and child abuse.
The issues covered in this blog are addressed more fully in our book: Disability, Gender and Violence over the Life Course: Global Perspectives and Human Rights Approaches. Shah, S. & Bradbury-Jones, C. (2018), Routledge, London.
Caroline Bradbury-Jones is a registered nurse, midwife and health visitor. Her research interests lie broadly within the scope of addressing inequalities and more specifically are focused on issues of family violence and child abuse and neglect. She has led or been actively involved in securing funding for a number of research projects relevant to these areas. She has undertaken research or engaged in scholarly activities with a number of countries including Japan, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany and Finland. Caroline leads the Risk, Abuse and Violence research programme at the University of Birmingham.
Sonali Shah is a Research Fellow in the School of Nursing at the University of Birmingham. She is funded by a Burdett Trust award to undertake a qualitative study ‘Eternal: UK healthcare of women with Cerebral Palsy across the female life cycle’. The purpose is to address the gap in existing understandings about growing older with Cerebral Palsy, and women’s health, and to highlight the health and healthcare experiences of disabled women in general, and women with CP in particular. The proposed outcome is to develop an educational tool for nurses, midwives and allied healthcare practitioners to understand the embodied changes experienced by girls and women with Cerebral Palsy across the life course (from menarche to menopause), and how to overcome structural and cultural barriers to healthcare services, environments and treatments, particularly in relation to reproductive and sexual health.