Disabled Women Subject to ‘Stigma and Bias’ as Well as Abuse

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Women with disabilities are more at risk and experience additional layers of violence‚ according to a study presented at the International Conference for Preventing Violence in Cape Town on Friday.

The study – titled Additional Layers of Violence: The Intersections of Gender and Disability in the Violence Experiences of Women with Physical Disabilities in South Africa – was compiled by Ingrid van der Heijden and Naeemah Abrahams. Abrahams said that women with disabilities are doubly at risk of experiencing violence and are often subject to “disability stigma and bias”.

According to Abrahams‚ the most common forms of abuse they encountered included psychological and physical violence‚ financial abuse‚ neglect and deprivation.

“The majority of people with disabilities in South Africa‚ according to the 2011 Census‚ are black-African and generally lived in poverty with little access to services.”

The study drew from in-depth interviews conducted with 30 physically disabled women in Cape Town‚ who “were black and coloured women between the ages of 19 to 54” – women with cognitive disabilities were excluded from the study.

“All of them received a disability grant and experienced a range of sensory and physical impairments‚” Abrahams said.

“In many instances‚ these women were assumed to be asexual – in other words‚ unable to enjoy sex‚ bear children or have an intimate partner.

“Psychological abuse was the most prevalent and included name-calling such as ‘monkey’ and ‘creature’; in-laws have told these women that they are not suitable to be wives and refuse to play labola.

“One woman’s mother told her that she would never be able to bear a child as she herself is a child.”

Abrahams also said that the exploitation of disability grants is widespread “largely as a result of the extensive poverty”.

She quoted an account from one of the participants in the study: “The first thing they (non-disabled men) will as you is ‘do you work?’‚ and you say no. ‘Okay do you go to school?’‚ and you say no. They ask: ‘But you do get a grant‚ don’t you?’‚ and if you do‚ then they will want to be with you.”

Said Abrahams: “Many of these women experienced severe neglect and deprivation. They are often left alone and neglected of their personal needs. Able-bodied partners hide them away and deprive them of a public relationship.”

Also of concern‚ she said‚ was that “nine of these women described their first sexual experience as coerced and some were forced to have oral sex by staff at the various care facilities”.

She quoted the account of a quadriplegic participant: “He came in and he knew there was no one there. He pulled me from my wheelchair and pushed me on the ground‚ he did that thing and afterwards I was lying on the ground. I could not get up. I just cried.”

Abrahams says that these additional risks and layers of violence need to be “recognised and inform interventions” to prevent and respond to violence against women with disabilities in the country.

“Prevention of violence against women needs to address the role of disability stigma that shapes the type of violence they experience‚ change gender norms‚ and create accessible and safe environments and economic empowerment opportunities‚” Abrahams added.

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