In April 2012, a cellphone video of a teenager with an intellectual disability being gang raped by men and boys from her community in Soweto went viral. Authorities had no choice but to attend to the 17-year-old’s ordeal, so too, South Africans had to acknowledge the violence that so many women and girls with disabilities face on a daily basis.
This was not the first time men had abused the young girl. She had also experienced violence in 2009 and 2010, but authorities failed to address these instances and make arrests. One wonders whether police would have seen to her case, had her ordeal not been filmed and shared so publicly. Over a year later, the accused still await trial, while charges have been dropped against one of the eight alleged perpetrators.
Although gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa has received much more attention in recent years, it is clear that our society, the media and authorities often ignore and neglect the violence experienced by women and girls with disabilities. When society does ‘acknowledge’ issues relating to disability, they are disturbingly mocked, trivialised and stereotyped.
Society continues to stigmatise individuals with disabilities as infantile and burdensome dependents. But, what society fails to understand is that the real ‘disability’ does not lie with an individual’s impairment, but rather the attitudes and physical barriers within society. These barriers continue to exclude and discriminate against so many people, hindering their access to basic human rights.
It has become more widely known that women with disabilities are the most vulnerable to abuse and sexual violence, facing double the risk of being survivors of GBV compared to their non-disabled counterparts. Furthermore, high levels of economic disparity and under-reporting in this country and Southern Africa greatly exacerbate women’s vulnerability.
Women and children with disabilities are subject to different forms of abuse in their homes, care facilities and schools - if they are even lucky enough to access education. Perpetrators are often family members, spouses or caregivers, and in most cases known to the survivors. Owing to a lack of access to social, medical and legal support, most cases of violence are never reported and inadequately addressed.
We need to empower, educate and support women and children, especially those most vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. But, we also need to acknowledge that the ‘single-issue’ approach to human rights advocacy is ineffective.
A successful and sustainable approach requires an understanding of how other struggles intersect. For instance, high instances of GBV among women with disabilities are directly related to the increasing rates of HIV infection among these women. We need to connect issues of gender, disability economic equality and access to education to address these problems.
The internationally recognised phrase ‘Nothing about us, without us’, is often thrown around in disability rights circles to remind ablest structures in society to be inclusive of all citizens’ needs. However, this phrase means nothing when so many people with disabilities in leadership positions do not actively and consistently dismantle sexism and implement strategies that will tangibly address rape and abuse on the ground.
We need to stop seeing rape crisis centres, children victim units, women’s rights organisations and legal advocacy groups as just charity organisations, but instead as the people at the frontlines trying to mitigate the GBV pandemic. They work hard to support survivors, educate law enforcement and monitor legal processes to ensure survivors see justice.
However, this immense task cannot be undertaken in isolation without non-governmental organisations stepping outside of their sectors to collaborate with each other, and other medical, legal and governmental departments to ensure an inclusive, effective and sustainable solution.
The media also plays a crucial role in reporting on and educating society about the increased vulnerability that women and girls with disabilities face. More importantly, they are instrumental in dismantling the discriminatory language and representations that perpetuate stigmas and stereotypes around disability and gender.
All education and awareness campaigns must not only be responsible and inclusive, but the voices and experiences of people with disabilities must inform and determine these strategies.
The common trend of heavily advocating for employment for people with disabilities, without placing equal emphasis on children with disabilities’ access to quality education, is counterintuitive and unsustainable. To realise rights for all, there needs to be a balance. Society must place equal weight on access to education, healthcare, occupational services and protection from violence and abuse.
It is crucial that efforts to address GBV are preventative and not merely reactionary. Our approach to incidents of violence against women and children with disabilities must be both a collaborative and holistic one.
- Gaby Sanchez is an inclusive education advocate, independent editorial strategist, and consultant specialising in matters of disability and gender rights. This article is part of the Gender Links News Service, special series on 16 Days of Activism, providing fresh views on everyday news.