Women with disabilities experience discrimination based on their gender and on their disability, as well as specific forms of discrimination based on them being women with disabilities. While a significant portion of women and girls are born with disabilities, others experience disability as a result of exposure to gender-related risk factors, including a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services, exposure to violence and harmful practices, and a gender-biased distribution of resources within households.
Sightsavers and European Disability Forum jointly implemented the project ‘Building Partnerships for Sustainable Development Goals – Empowering Disabled People’s Organisations’ which is supported by European Union. The project supports people with disabilities to engage in, shape and monitor the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
‘A society which is good for disabled people is a better society for all’ (Beckles, 2004)
Under the project, a joint paper Rising Voices: A Paper on women with disabilities was launched virtually in the presence of DPO members from India and Europe besides representatives from disability rights organisations. The paper aims to bring the voices of women with disabilities to the fore. It details how supporting women with disabilities to know their rights has helped them to stand up for themselves, gain independence and support others.
The voices of women with disabilities too often remain unheard. To understand some of the issues they face and bring their voices to the fore, 15 females DPO members from three Indian states were interviewed about their lives and experiences. Part of the interviews focused on four key SDG themes: violence, education, health and employment. The stories that emerged highlight the many barriers that women with disabilities continue to face.
Sneha, a DPO member from Rajasthan, was particularly affected. Now 36, she was badly burned in a household accident when she was 15 months old. Access to adequate health care in her local hospital was not available to her, but thanks to her uncle, who realised the seriousness of the situation, she was admitted to a district hospital. However, despite receiving six months’ treatment there, her hands were permanently hurt as a result of the accident and she lost all her fingers. Her husband physically and emotionally abused her. She shared one horrific experience:
“I used to be very religious and believed that I should be submissive and follow my husband everywhere. I had always been a devoted wife. He used to hit me, and I would never say anything, just quietly bore it all. For seven years I went through all of this. One day, when my husband came home drunk, he became angry because I’d been unable to prepare food on time as I was busy handling my younger son. In anger, he killed my son by throwing him twice on the wall, then on the floor and finally on the bed. My child died but I continued to nurse him thinking he was injured, and he’d get better. But he was declared dead when I took him to the nearest hospital. Even then, I did not complain about my husband being a murderer and defended him.”
The pain of losing her child was unbearable for Sneha and she was traumatised for years. She highlighted how a lack of financial independence and social welfare impacted her ability to leave this abusive relationship:
“When I was experiencing domestic violence, I needed more support from my family but there is no social security.”
The lack of accessible shelters for women with disabilities is also a concern in the EU, where staff working in shelters lack disability awareness and knowledge of how to welcome women with disabilities.
Many of the women interviewed were unaware of their legal rights and provisions to ensure justice. As a result, women with disabilities are often unable to demand accountability. This is made worse by the lack of statistics on crimes committed against women with disabilities, so there is no understanding of the level of violence.
Even when they manage to report incidents, women with disabilities are often treated badly by the police.
Anju, a DPO member from Odisha, shared her experience of harassment and discrimination by local police: “For my sister’s marriage, my brother bought a necklace for my sister-in-law and I asked for one too. I gave them money for it and asked them to sell my share of rice for the extra amount. However, my brother shouted at me and my father and took the rice and money. My brother called me a thief and launched a police complaint. I fought back but the police didn’t bother to take me seriously as I was disabled. My brother kept troubling me about the property and assets that my father wanted to give to me. ”
People with disabilities have the right to play a full and active part in society. At Sightsavers, we work towards creating an enabling and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities.
Picture Credit: Sightsavers India
The author is the CEO of Sightsavers India. Mohanty is well known and honoured by his associates and peers for his futuristic decision-making capacity and a good sense of judgment, essential for a leader at the helm of affairs. The views expressed are the author’s own.