As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, I think of “Merri,” one of the most formidable and resilient women I have ever met. A 50-year-old Aboriginal woman with a mental health condition, Merri grew up in a remote community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. When I met her, Merri was in pre-trial detention in an Australian prison. It was the first time she had been to prison and it was clear she was still reeling from trauma. But she was also defiant.
“Six months ago, I got sick of being bashed so I killed him,” she said. “I spent five years with him [my partner] being bashed; he gave me a freaking [sexually transmitted] disease. Now I have to suffer [in prison].”
Merri’s story is not uncommon. Studies show that women with physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) experience higher rates of domestic and sexual violence and abuse than other women. More than 70 percent of women with disabilities in Australia have experienced sexual violence, and they are 40 percent more likely to face domestic violence than other women.
Indigenous women are 35 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of domestic violence than non-indigenous women. Indigenous women who have a disability face intersecting forms of discrimination because of their gender, disability, and ethnicity that leave them at even greater risk of experiencing violence—and of being involved in violence and imprisoned.
I recently traveled through Western Australia visiting prisons, and I heard story after story of indigenous women with disabilities whose lives had been cycles of abuse and imprisonment, without effective help. For many women who need help, support services are simply not available. They may be too far away, hard to find, or not culturally sensitive or accessible to women. The result is that Australia’s prisons are disproportionately full of indigenous women with disabilities, who are also more likely to be incarcerated for minor offenses.
For numerous women like Merri in many parts of the country, prisons have become a default accommodation and support option due to a dearth of appropriate community-based services. As with countless women with disabilities, Merri’s disability was not identified until she reached prison. She had not received any support services in the community.
Merri has single-handedly raised her children as well as her grandchildren, but without any support or access to mental health services, life in the community has been a struggle for her. Strangely—and tragically—prison represented a respite for Merri. With eyes glistening with tears, she told me: “[Prison] is very stressful. But I’m finding it a break from a lot of stress outside.”
Today, on International Women’s Day, the Australian government should commit to making it a priority to meet the needs of women with disabilities who are at-risk of violence and abuse. In 2015, a Senate inquiry into the abuse people with disabilities face in institutional and residential settings revealed the extensive and diverse forms of abuse they face both in institutions and the community. The inquiry recommended that the government set up a Royal Commission to conduct a more comprehensive investigation into the neglect, violence, and abuse faced by people with disabilities across Australia. The government has been unwilling to do so, citing the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Quality and Safeguard Framework as adequate.
While the framework is an important step forward, it would only reach people who are enrolled under the NDIS. Its complaints mechanism would not provide a comprehensive look at the diversity and scale of the violence people with disabilities experience, let alone at the ways in which various intersecting forms of discrimination affect people with disabilities.
The creation of a Royal Commission, on the other hand, could give voice to survivors of violence inside and outside the NDIS. It could direct a commission’s resources at a thorough investigation into the violence people with disabilities face in institutional and residential settings, as well as in the community.
The government urgently needs to hear directly from women like Merri about the challenges they face, and how the government can do better at helping them. Whether or not there is a Royal Commission, the government should consult women with disabilities, including indigenous women, and their representative organizations to learn how to strengthen support services. Government services that are gender and culturally appropriate, and accessible to women across the country, can curtail abuse and allow women with disabilities to live safe, independent lives in the community.