International Development CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Bond Disability and Development Group


1. Summary of Key Points

1.1. Disabled women and girls are twice as likely to experience gender-based violence than non-disabled women and girls: one in seven women and girls are disabled; they are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment and exploitation than their non-disabled peers; and they face greater obstacles in reporting abuse and accessing support, justice and rehabilitation services.

1.2. Despite this, disabled women and girls are largely invisible in current violence against women and girls (VAWG) analysis and programmes which often fail to adequately recognise and tackle the multiple intersecting forms of discrimination faced by women, including disability, which intensify vulnerability to gender based violence (GBV).

1.3. Human Rights instruments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) require all States to take action to address VAWG and to ensure that disabled women and girls are reached and included in such initiatives.

1.4. DFID policy and practice in this area should pay greater attention to the issues faced by disabled women and girls and take steps to gather evidence and deepen learning in order to ensure their effective inclusion.

1.5. DFID should take a leadership role on developing campaigns to challenge the social norms underpinning VAWG which involve the active participation of disabled women and girls and which highlight unequal power relations between disabled and non-disabled people as well as between men and women.

1.6. Cross cutting policies on inclusive development need to be introduced within DFID to drive and support a greater focus on disability issues in the context of VAWG and other key areas of development. We welcome the forthcoming inquiry on disability inclusion as a positive step forward.

2. Bond Disability and Development Group (Ddg)

2.1. The member organisations of DDG represent a large body of experience based on direct work with disabled people, their organisations and the disability movement in developing countries, as well as advocacy and policy engagement with service providers and policymakers. As a result DDG is able to draw on a broad and deep understanding of the challenges faced by disabled people, the links between disability and poverty, and the importance of including disability issues within the development process.

3. Violence Against Disabled Women and Girls: The Current Situation

3.1. According to the recent WHO Report on Disability (2011), 15% of the world’s population are disabled people, and disability prevalence rates among women are higher than among men. International studies (cited in the 2012 report of the Working Group on Violence Against Women with Disabilities, ‘Forgotten Sisters’) have concluded that women with disabilities suffered an equal, or up to three times greater, risk of rape by a stranger or acquaintance, than their non-disabled peers, while the same report states that ‘Women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence as non-disabled women, and are likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of the violence.’ A small 2004 survey in India found that virtually all women and girls with disabilities were beaten at home, 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped and 6% of disabled women had been forcibly sterilised.

3.2. Disabled women and girls are disempowered as a result of multiple and intersecting forms disadvantage. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women notes that VAWG is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women: a similar imbalance of power exists between disabled and non-disabled people and consequently disabled women and girls are doubly disempowered. Furthermore, disability often interacts with other forms of social disadvantage and discrimination, such as age or ethnicity—in addition to gender—which combine to intensify vulnerability to violence.

3.3. Disabled women and girls are routinely excluded from prevention, information and support services as a result of their double marginalisation (by gender and disability) which leaves them isolated and excluded from participating in various mainstream settings (educational institutions, workplaces, social groups) where information and support services which aim to prevent GBV are channeled.

3.4. GBV can be a major cause of disability, or increased disability, among women and girls. Women who are disabled as a result of domestic or GBV are then further marginalised and disadvantaged—factors which can lead to further violence. In South Africa, Rose and her daughter Nokwazi were both blinded as a result of constant physical abuse at the hands of Nokwazi’s father. Rose said ‘I don’t think the blindness was caused by one incident…I think slowly I was getting damaged’ and she spoke of her daughter’s reluctance to report the cause of her blindness; ‘it’s because the father said if you tell I will kill you’.

3.5. Disabled women and girls are subject to same types of violence as all women, but there are additional factors relating to the individual’s form of impairment and her social status as a disabled woman/girl, which can give rise to disability-related abuse and violence, such as leaving a woman who is not independently mobile without assistance or isolated for long periods to ‘punish’ her. Disabled women and girls do not represent a homogenous group, so the dynamics of abuse depend on the type and extent of impairment, but many of the factors which intensify vulnerability are common to the majority of disabled women, such as economic dependence, low self-esteem and confidence, and social isolation.

3.6. Disabled women and girls may find it more difficult to escape abuse. The stigma and social isolation associated with disability means that disabled women and girls may endure violence for longer periods of time than their non-disabled counterparts. Depending on the nature and severity of their impairment, disabled women and girls may be extremely dependent on caregivers and family or community members, thereby creating opportunity for the perpetration of violence and abuse while simultaneously limiting options for escaping an abusive relationship.

3.7. Disabled women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse as a result of their extreme marginalisation, social isolation, and dependence. This is compounded by common assumptions such as that they are non-sexual or unable to conceive which may lead to their exclusion from protection, information and services. Disabled women are easy prey for sexual exploitation within the family, and disabled women and girls are also vulnerable to rape in contexts where men misguidedly believe that sex with a virgin will cure HIV/AIDS. They are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation or trafficking in situations where families see this as the only economic option, while exploiters see disabled women and girls as less likely to complain or run away: in Thailand, UNICEF has found that brothel owners have specifically sought deaf girls and adolescents for this reason.

3.8. Women with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to forced sterilisation which is carried out on disabled women and girls without their consent for a number of reasons including preventing pregnancy (including that resulting from sexual abuse); stopping menstruation in order to facilitate personal care; and for birth control where disabled women are deemed to be incapable or unfit mothers. This practice remains widespread, despite being identified as a violation of human rights (UN Human Rights Council and Committee Against Torture), and despite guidelines issued by the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics which define it as an ‘act of violence’.

3.9. While all women and girls are vulnerable to GBV in situations of conflict and post-conflict, disabled women are particularly vulnerable. At the same time, violence relating to conflict is also a major cause of disability among affected or displaced populations. In a recent report on displaced populations in post-conflict Northern Uganda (Human Rights Watch) a disabled woman describes how ‘when food is being given, sometimes persons with disabilities are given what others leave behind on their plates’. The same report found many disabled women remaining in camps long after others have returned home because they are physically and economically unable to leave as a result of their disability. In this context disabled women are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in order to secure their basic needs.

4. Disabled Women And Girls Face Barriers To Escaping Violence, Reporting Crimes And Accessing Justice, Care And Recovery Services

4.1. Many disabled women and girls do not report violence and abuse. The reasons for this are multiple and complex, including low levels of confidence and self-esteem as a result of their low status and disempowerment; social isolation; fear of abandonment, loss of financial support and care; fear of loss of children where there may be negative assumptions about their ability to care for children; and high levels of dependency on caregivers, who in many cases may also be the perpetrators of the abuse.

4.2. Information on women and girls’ rights in relation to GBV, and on support and justice services, often fails to reach disabled women and girls as a result of social isolation, low levels of education and communication barriers. This situation is often the result of lack of awareness and training among policymakers and practitioners: even where organisations believe that they are offering services to all women and girls, few recognise the need to take special measures to ensure equal access, and to develop policies and training to support these measures. A recent study of service providers in South Africa (‘On the Margins’) found that disproportionately few disabled women were included, and that none of these had sensory or intellectual impairments.

4.3. The devaluation of disabled people in general, and disabled women and girls in particular, leads to a lack of support for those who seek justice and support services. Police stations and health facilities are often physically inaccessible, while many disabled women and girls face financial and communication barriers in accessing these services independently. Police and other professionals often lack the awareness and skills needed to support disabled women and girls reporting abuse, and this is often compounded by an unwillingness to give credence or weight to their testimony (particularly women and girls with learning difficulties). In many cases the testimony of disabled women (particularly those with learning difficulties) is inadmissible within the legal system: A mother in Kenya was told that her daughter of 13, who had been raped, would not be able to pursue the case ‘as the girl is deaf and disabled and cannot be able to give evidence in court’.

5. International Frameworks Relating to Violence Against Women and Girls

5.1. A human rights approach requires VAWG programmes to be developed based on the principles of meaningful participation of stakeholders, accountability, non-discrimination and equality of outcomes for different groups of people regardless of their status or identity. This implies giving priority to those groups of women and girls whose rights are often ignored, and taking specific action to ensure their inclusion.

5.2. The UNCRPD ratified by the UK notes the multiple forms of discrimination experienced by disabled women and girls and the obligation of States to take appropriate measures addressing this (Article 6). It also highlights the gender-based aspects of violence and abuse experienced by disabled people and obliges States to ‘prevent the occurrence of all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse.’ The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) addresses the concerns of women with disabilities in a number of its recommendations, and one of its recommendation (18) focuses specifically on women with disabilities. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action—Paragraph 126(d) calls for ‘special measures to eliminate violence against women, particularly those in vulnerable situations, such as … women with disabilities’. Other relevant instruments include the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

5.3. There is broad consensus that the current development goals (MDGs) do not adequately address inequality and marginalisation, and it is likely that the post-2015 international development framework will focus more sharply on equality. If so, it will be necessary to develop thinking, knowledge, skills and resources to include more effectively those who are currently overlooked in all areas of development, such as disabled women and girls.

6. Invisibility of Disabled Women and Girls Within VAWG Analysis and Programming

Despite the significance of disability as a factor which compounds vulnerability to GBV, and the obligation to address this within the human rights framework, there is a prevailing lack of awareness of this issue among policymakers, practitioners and communities, linked to the social isolation and low status of disabled women and girls which means that they are less visible at all levels of society. In the context of VAWG, their invisibility is compounded by the low numbers of disabled women and girls who are able to report their experience of GBV, and by their absence in justice and support services which currently fail to reach or include them. Linked to this vicious circle of invisibility and exclusion, there has been limited research into this issue, and much of the research to date has been carried out in a developed country context, with a focus on the problem rather than on solutions.

6.1. As with other areas of development, there have been difficulties in ensuring that multi-disciplinary approaches are developed in VAWG programmes: Disability tends to be overlooked in GBV programmes (underpinned by CEDAW), while disability focused work (underpinned by the UNCRPD) tends to overlook GBV. In her recent report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women With Disabilities notes that ‘The lack of an intersectional approach can lead to the reinforcing of one form of discrimination in attempts to alleviate another.’

7. How can VAWG Programmes become more Inclusive of Disabled Women and Girls?

7.1. Develop multi-sectoral, holistic approaches through greater collaboration and coordination between the Disability and Women’s Movements, and between organisations and departments working on disability issues and on GBV issues.

7.2. Greater attention in prevention programmes to factors which contribute to violence against disabled women and girls: Action to challenge and change social norms should focus on those power structures which underpin disability discrimination as well as gender discrimination, including violence-supportive attitudes and behaviours, community norms, institutional practices and systems, laws and policies.

7.3. Address barriers to disabled women and girls in accessing services and support: This requires active steps to reach disabled women and girls and to identify and address the barriers which exclude them. Developing inclusive practices and structures needs to be seen as an obligation—not a choice.

7.4. Take action to promote the voices of disabled women and girls in the process of changing social norms: Channels for empowerment and mobilisation of disabled women and girls within and beyond the Women’s Movement need to be identified and supported. One aspect of this will be to support the participation of disabled women and girls in the VAWG Global Implementation Plan and the Global Advocacy Campaign.

7.5. Improve understanding on links between disability and VAWG through research and other learning processes. The disaggregation of data in VAWG programmes (by disability as well as gender, age etc.) would be a key element of gathering evidence and learning.

8. Recommendations to the Select Committee

8.1. Greater attention should be given to issues affecting disabled women and girls in the context of VAWG in DFID’s analysis, research, policies and guidelines. This will need to be supported by investment in research and learning in this area in order to develop effective programme responses. DFID’s How To Note and Practical Guide for programme work on VAWG mentions disability, but the documents do not currently give the issue sufficient attention to ensure that responses to VAWG are effective in including disabled women and girls, given that levels of awareness of disability issues across all development sectors tends to be low.

8.2. There should be a clear requirement for programmes to address disability issues and to include disabled women and girls in calls for funding proposals; accountability procedures; and learning processes. This should be supported by a requirement for data to be disaggregated by disability, drawing on current best practice in this area such as the Washington Group Guidelines. Although the DFID Practice Guidelines encourage disability to be considered, the implication is that disabled women and girls are a ‘group’ that may or may not be targeted. The Guidelines themselves do not include any case studies on disabled women or girls, and neither are they mentioned in any of the examples given—this demonstrates how easy it is for disability issues to be overlooked where there is no requirement to include them.

8.3. Disabled women and girls should be centrally involved in campaigning to challenge the social norms which underpin VAWG. We urge DFID to put its weight behind campaigns which expose and challenge the discriminatory attitudes and practices which contribute to such high levels of violence and abuse against disabled women and girls. DFID’s guidelines rightly emphasise the importance of transforming gender power relations, but there is little recognition of the many dimensions of power relations—in addition to gender—which impact on levels of VAWG, such as the fundamental imbalance of power between disabled and non-disabled people. Greater attention needs to be given to channels of empowerment outside the Women’s Movement, such as Disabled People’s Organisations where disabled women, who may feel marginalised within the mainstream women’s movement, are often more likely to build initial confidence and skills.

8.4. Action to ensure the inclusion of disabled women and girls in VAWG programmes must be supported by a more holistic approach to disability inclusion across all DFID policy areas at all levels. Practical steps towards this would include: The creation of a policy on inclusive development approaches; a TOC and practice guidelines on disability inclusion; and the appointment of a senior resource person to drive these processes forward. We welcome the forthcoming inquiry on disability issues as a key step in securing progress on this issue.

January 2013

Prepared 12th June 2013