The plight of women with disabilities

It is difficult to know where to start when writing about the failure to properly address women’s rights.  We are quite simply spoilt for choice. Physical abuse and the treatment of people with disabilities are among the long list of concerns.  If we do occasionally address physical abuse inflicted on women, we have a complete disregard for violence against women with a disability…

The reason for this is that our prejudices, attitudes, and different ways of perceiving women and people with disabilities have infiltrated every aspect of our lives – and it has been the case for the past 2,000 years.

Just being a women has meant being systematically dominated and discriminated against for generations in all areas of life, in much the same way that people with disabilities have faced discrimination.  Under the pretext of “physical weakness”, a need to fend off (and control) impurities, sin and demonization, both women and people with disabilities have been – to a lesser or greater degree – exploited, abused, excluded, and had their rights denied, etc., etc., due to not being considered quite human, or not fully worthy.

Numerous actions and growing awareness have brought about progress and it is true that living standards have improved significantly for the vast majority over the past decades – though it is not universally the case.  Nevertheless, it would be totally wrong to believe that women’s rights are now being fully upheld and acted upon – far from it.

People largely underestimate how poorly women with disabilities can be treated. They are misfortunate enough to be at that perilous crossroads, where gender and disability collide together, multiplying the risk of physical abuse. It’s as if this mix of vulnerability somehow has the capacity to simultaneously trigger both compassion and violence; as if we are confronted with the presence, or possibly absence, of our own humanity at this junction where gender and disability meet..

In France, 72% of women with disabilities fall victim to abuse of all kinds.  It can be physical or verbal abuse; of a sexual nature or connected to money. It can be at the hands of medical staff or within the confines of a relationship.

The Istanbul Convention (2011) recognizes the structural nature of such violence.  As for the European Commission, it is necessary to adopt the principle of “intersectionality” in the anti-discrimination legislation, as women with disabilities generally cannot file complaints for multiple cases of discrimination but are required to base their accusations either in relation to gender or disability.

The International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for its part, makes special reference to the rights of girls and women with disabilities to underline the need to focus on improving the situation of women with disabilities in all areas.

It is imperative for us to inform and raise awareness at all levels, without forgetting girls and women with disabilities, with appropriate and repeated educational approaches to the various deficiencies regardless of age.

All this helps to underline the importance of education, the role of professionals, families and family planning for example … but also initiatives aimed at promoting and raising awareness, no matter how small.

So, in this early part of 2017, we need to get a grip of the current reality of gender-biased attitudes and behaviors towards girls and women, including those considered to be disabled. They should be able to navigate public and private space free from abuse.  There’s still a long way to go!


Chantal BRUNO, COFACE HANDICAP President, February 2017

Photo credit :  Chantal BRUNO

Read the original in French here

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