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Dispatches: “Who Can Save Me?” - Domestic Violence and Disability

“He beat me because of my disability. He said to others that I was useless, could not make love or cook.”

This is how Angela, a 20-year-old woman born with a physical disability, described her husband when I met her in northern Uganda some years ago. When Angela complained to authorities she was advised to stay with her husband. After four months of abuse, she left him.

A woman with a disability stands at the window of a night shelter run by Iswar Sankalpa, a Kolkata-based NGO, where women receive food, basic care, and access to voluntary treatment until they are ready to go back to their communities. © 2013 Shantha Rau Barriga/Human Rights Watch

I was reminded of Angela’s story recently, when I saw a short French film highlighting the stories of eight women with disabilities who are survivors of domestic violence. One woman living with Down syndrome, Anne, worries that no one will believe that her husband and father-in-law physically and sexually abused her. As the segment fades, she asks, “Who can save me?”

Unfortunately, as we mark International Women’s Day today, women and girls with disabilities around the world continue to echo Anne’s question.

According to the World Health Organization, 30 percent of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner; but women with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to experience some form of domestic violence.

Women and girls with disabilities often rely on relationships that leave them open to exploitation and abuse from the early stages of their lives, and resources in easy-to-read formats just aren’t widely available.

When the shame women often feel as a result of domestic violence is coupled with the stigma of having a disability, reporting abuses can seem impossible. Just last month, a woman with a psychosocial disability in Kolkata, India told me how the police refused to file her sexual assault complaint: “They said to me, ‘She’s mental. Why should I pay attention to her?’”

Because she is entitled to the same rights as other women.

And governments need to ensure women and girls with disabilities have access to services and to justice. Governments should also make sure police get training on how to take testimony from women and girls with disabilities – and to do so with respect. Governments, United Nations agencies, donors, and disabled persons’ organizations should work together to make prevention and protection services accessible and inclusive. And key to the effectiveness of these efforts is consultation with the disability community, particularly women and girls with disabilities themselves. 

We’ll then have a better answer to Anne’s urgent question, “Who can save me?”




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