Nearly one in five women (19.2 percent) have a disability, compared to just 12 percent of men. These women often depend on caretakers for survival and may have a limited ability to move or communicate.
This leaves them vulnerable to severe abuse. Some disabilities (eg, deafness) make it difficult for women to communicate their abuse, while intellectual disabilities may cause police to ignore or discredit them if they try to file a report.
Sexual violence toward women is already a global crisis, but women with disabilities suffer disproportionately from those without. To understand the issue, we first need to understand the causes and prevalence of sexual violence as a whole.
Sexual Violence Is an Epidemic
As defined by the United Nations (UN), sexual violence is “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting…”
More than half of all women have been victims of sexual violence, and one in four have been raped or have had someone attempt to rape them. Women are at higher risk if they live in low or lower-middle-income countries, are young, or live in sexist/patriarchal societies.
Often sexual violence is perpetrated by an intimate partner, relative, or someone the victim knows. One in four women will endure some type of violence from an intimate partner by their mid-twenties, affecting approximately 641 million women worldwide.
While these numbers are staggering, they only get worse for women with disabilities.
The Scope of Sexual Violence Toward Disabled Women
The number of women who face sexual violence is despicable, but the number of women with disabilities who do is truly abhorrent. They are three times more likely to experience it than women without disabilities. It’s estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 39 percent of female rape survivors had a disability when they were raped.
Studies disagree on the numbers, but not the problem. One study puts sexual abuse toward women with intellectual disabilities at 31.3 percent. Another study says that 40 percent of women with any disability are victims of violence or sexual assault and that 90 percent of all developmentally-disabled people will experience a sexual assault.
Sources with the most daunting numbers say that 80 percent of disabled women have been sexually assaulted. Think about that. If you know five women with disabilities, chances are that four of them have had sexual contact against their will.
Advocacy and Action
Understanding the scope of the problem is only the beginning. Why are women with disabilities at such a great risk? It depends on a multitude of factors, including the severity of their disability.
Women with disabilities who are victimised deal with significant barriers such as a lack of education, lack of accessible shelters, untrained staff in available shelters, and more. This often leaves them unable to hold their perpetrators accountable.
Disabled women may be dependent on those who abuse them. Deaf or blind women may not know formal sign language or brail, which limits their ability to report sexual violence; intellectually disabled women aren’t often seen as credible by police.
Furthermore, physically disabled women may rely on their abusers for care and be financially or physically incapable of engaging in legal proceedings. Despite these barriers, many disabled women are fighting to have their voices heard.
Help Their Voices Be Heard
Sexual violence toward women is a worldwide epidemic, but it hurts women with disabilities even more.
Most of all, though, change starts small. Talk to the disabled women you know. Keep an eye out for risk factors of abuse, and share the stories of survivors with friends and on social media. Survivors can be kept in the dark by their abusers and the barriers of their disabilities, but abuse ends when it’s brought into the light.
Aliyah Moore is a certified sex therapist and resident sex expert and writer at SexualAlpha where she gives no-nonsense sex and relationship advice and guides. She has also appeared in Popsugar, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, and MindbodyGreen among others.