Globally, one in five women has a disability. Despite this figure, women with disabilities are still largely unrecognized and under-represented. This observation goes for all areas of life: education, healthcare, labor, the media, and politics. Women and girls with disabilities face double discrimination: sexism and ableism.
WOMAN + DISABILITY = INCREASED EXPOSURE TO VIOLENCE
The UN reports that compared to other women, women and girls with disabilities are three times likelier to experience violence, whether at the hands of family members, intimate partners, caregivers, or institutions. The social misconceptions that objectify, downgrade, and alienate women with disabilities heighten their vulnerability to sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Furthermore, women and girls with disabilities often have
- an emotional and financial dependence on their abuser
- a fear of the stigma associated with violence
- difficulties in getting child custody
- no access to programs and services that help overcome and prevent violence, and no access to related treatment or equipment.
In sum, women with disabilities face many barriers to preventing violence, defending themselves, or seeking justice. Even when they turn to the police or other community members for help, their complaints are not given due credence. It is highly likely for authorities not to believe the statements of women with disabilities due to prevailing gender biases and disability myths. Law enforcement officers often dismiss and give little to no credibility to reports involving women with disabilities, especially the cognitively impaired. In addition, judges tend to demand more evidence from them. The complaints of women with disabilities are subject to more scrutiny, and their health history is frequently used against them. While many studies show that women and girls with disabilities experience more violence than anyone else, they receive far less credit for reporting incidents.
THE SYMBOLIC ANNIHILATION OF WOMEN WITH DISABILITIES
Women with disabilities are treated as if they should have no control over their bodies, no sexual freedom, and no reproductive rights. One of the most common stereotypes is that the disabled are not sexually active or that other people must control their sexuality and fertility, as they are not deemed capable of making the right decisions for themselves.
Forced sterilization is still widespread despite the various legal prohibitions against it. Globally, women with disabilities are still being coerced into abortion and forced to end their wanted pregnancies on the patronizing ground it is “in their best interest.” These procedures are performed without their consent and only upon the approval of their partners, parents, institutions, or tutors. For many years, the coerced sterilization of women with disabilities has been socially and legally accepted. In theory, it is now prohibited in various countries, but in practice, it is still used to reduce the fertility of women with disabilities, especially those with mental disorders.
ASSOCIATIONS ARE MOBILIZED FOR CHANGE
In Cameroon, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, and Madagascar, associations for women with disabilities are rallying to combat this violence and defend their rights. Feminists in Action funds and supports some of these groups.
In Guinea, women with disabilities face a tremendous amount of issues:
- Poor access to information and services in the field of reproductive health,
- Dealing with staff that is untrained and insensitive to disability,
- Poor inclusion of disability in health programs,
- High illiteracy rates,
- Financial vulnerability,
- A widespread stereotyping of persons with disabilities
These are just a few of their challenges, which mainly range from family planning to pregnancy and childbirth care, including access to sex and affective education, gynecological follow-up, and preventing or managing STIs, etc.
Organisation de Secours aux Handicapés de Guinée – OSH Guinée (Organization for the Relief of Persons with Disabilities) addresses these needs with a program to improve access to information and quality health services for women and girls with disabilities. The mission of OSH Guinée is to promote reproductive and sexual health and rights across the country through comprehensive initiatives on sex education for women and girls and training courses for hospital staff.
In Haiti, the Mouvement pour l’Intégration et l’Émancipation des Femmes Handicapées – MIEFH (Movement for the Inclusion and Emancipation of Women with Disabilities) is relentlessly battling to ensure the economic empowerment of women with disabilities. MIEFH trains women in various crafts so they can enter the job market through self-employment: screen-printing, dressmaking, bag making, tailoring, jewelry making, etc. Indeed, economic empowerment is essential to helping women grow their independence and not rely on any institution, parent, or spouse.
In Madagascar, the Association des Femmes Handicapées de Madagascar – AFHAM (Association of Women with Disabilities) promotes healthy and fulfilling sexuality for persons with disabilities. The sexuality of the disabled, particularly women, is largely unacknowledged and frowned upon. AFHAM found that persons with disabilities are often perceived as asexual. Their sexuality is prone to curiosity and apprehension among their community and immediate family.
The project “Our body, our choice” focuses on improving access to reproductive and sexual health services for women with disabilities and encouraging their social inclusion. It also seeks to sensitize the family and friends of people with disabilities to ensure that they no longer need to make decisions on behalf of their loved ones regarding relationships, motherhood, or sexuality.
Other associations are helping improve the daily lives of women with disabilities as part of the Feminists in Action project, such as:
- “Women In Action for Human Dignity” in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- the “Community Association for Vulnerable Persons” in Cameroon
- Colectiva Sordas Feministas (Collective of Deaf Feminists) in Ecuador
- Associación Hondurena de Lesionados Medulares y Similares (Honduran Association of people with spinal cord injuries and related lesions)