(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 20, 2013
Sexual Assaults & Women with
Disabilities: Some Issues
In the plethora of debates that ensued both within the media and outside, one thing that got a complete miss was the assaults on girls and women with disabilities. It was as though, even in the matter of reportage and discussion on violence against women, the disabled were being discriminated.
This, despite the fact that during the course of the last couple of years there has been an increase in the number of cases of sexual assault on girls and women with disabilities. And, this again, despite the increasing number of incidents being reported, sexual assaults and violence against women with disabilities continue to remain underreported.
Therefore when the opportunity came in the form of the setting up of the Justice Verma Committee, the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD) alongwith 24 other organisations working among persons with disabilities made a written submission to the Committee on January 4.
The NPRD note underlines that girls and women with disabilities are more vulnerable to exploitation. This is so because they are considered as soft targets with the perpetrators assuming that they can get away easily. Moreover, in many cases such women are unable to comprehend or communicate about such acts of violence or assault they face. Some reports suggest that they are upto three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse as compared to other women. Such victims are not taken seriously either by the police or the judicial system. Their difficulty in expressing themselves compounds matters even further.
While gender specific issues are common, disabled women have concerns that have to be addressed separately. Also each specific disability has a unique problem not shared by persons with other disabilities.
While a blind girl facing sexual assault does not see the perpetrator of the crime, a speech impaired woman will find it difficult to communicate the agony that she has been through. A girl with intellectual disability, in many cases, is unable to even comprehend that a violation has taken place while the issue in relation to a woman with mental illness is entirely different.
TV serial by the name Crime Patrol in a
recent episode highlighted the case of a young girl with
disability who was abused and subsequently got pregnant. The
girl was lodged in
Ashreya, a government residential home in
turning offenders is not unusual. In
July 2012, an NGO run home in Hooghly of West Bengal was
sealed following the
discovery of a young woman’s body buried within its
compound. Guriya, a
destitute woman with mental illness was taken to the Dulal
Smriti Samsad by the
It also came to light that several other inmates (most of them were destitute mentally ill or women with intellectual disability) were routinely sexually abused by men from outside the home. Medical examination of some of the victims also revealed signs of regular sexual intercourse. Copper-T was found inserted in the bodies of a few inmates.
It is obvious that this abuse and exploitation of hapless women was going on over a period of time, as the victims were unable to express themselves or those to whom they turned to did not believe them in the first place. Even during questioning after the first death was reported, the women, given their mental condition, were unable to narrate their experience.
What is more atrocious is that this was happening within a “home” that was supposed to provide them “shelter” and the perpetrators got access to these women with the connivance of the “caregivers”.
As opposed to these, the problems encountered by a girl/woman with visual impairment, is entirely different. The testimony given by a blind girl at a “Public Hearing on Issues Affecting Women with Disabilities” organised by the Jadavpur University in collaboration with Sruti Disability Rights Centre, Kolkata is indicative of the problems confronted by such women. “I face sexual abuse regularly. I have to commute to college by public bus. I need help of others in crossing roads and even during bus rides. One day I asked a man who was standing at the bus stop to help me to get into the bus. I asked him to hold my hand and then I realised he was touching my body also. I was very nervous – I thought if I protested he will let me go off and I will meet with an accident. This man kept on touching me in an inappropriate manner inside the bus. But I could not protest. And if I would have said anything, who would have believed? I can not see, so for me to identify him would be difficult. And others would think that he held my hands just to help me board the bus. So would they believe me?
hearing/speech impairment may
not feel unsafe in a crowd while crossing roads or boarding
or de-boarding a
bus. But it is in places when they are alone that they
become more vulnerable.
Here also, the assaulter may be a person in whom she has
reposed confidence. In
February 2012 a hearing impaired girl was raped by a doctor
inside the premises
Even the legal system has failed such victims in most cases. There are a host of cases where the legal process has undermined and devalued the testimony of the disabled prosecutrix. In many cases the testimony of the prosecutrix is not recorded at all. Then there are cases where her testimony is recorded but the correct legal procedure is not followed, which renders such testimony ineffectual for the purpose of law. Even when testimonies are recorded in the legally valid manner, they are dismissed for its lack of ‘intelligibility’. And, finally, cases of testimony being recorded in the legally valid manner, but getting dismissed eventually for not being consistent with medical evidence.
Therefore even while the vulnerability of all females with disabilities is comparatively greater, the hazard that each one faces is unique to that particular disability.
the absence of consolidated
figures with regard to violence against women with
disabilities hinders any
study. But the magnitude and scale of the attacks can be
gauged by the fact
that in the year 2012 alone, dozens of cases of sexual
violence on women with
disabilities have been reported in media from just one
In most of the reported cases, it is either a family member, close relative or an acquaintance, or staff of the institution who is the perpetrator. They have easy access to the victims. In this light it is essential that monitoring mechanisms be put in place to begin with at least in such institutions where girls and women disabilities are lodged. Such monitoring bodies consisting of activists and specialists should have complete access to these facilities and conduct checks on a periodic basis.
Most of the time, such crimes go unreported. In a mindset where the victim is blamed and shamed, compounded with the fact that the victim is disabled, family members are often reluctant to lodge complaints. Even when such an effort is made, they have to encounter immense hurdles. The testimony of the victim is often viewed with scepticism, more so in case she is a woman with mental illness or has intellectual disability. In the absence of interpreters a woman who is deaf or speech impaired is unable to communicate properly.
A team from the National Commission for Women which visited West Bengal on April 3 and 4, 2012 in the wake of reports of increasing attacks against women with disabilities talking note of such impediments made the following recommendations: “We would like to recommend that the requirements of persons with special needs have to be kept in mind by all police stations and medical establishments so that they are provided with handholding support including services of interpreters, readers, professionals, psychologists and NGOs depending on the nature of the case. A panel of experts for this purpose can be prepared for each district in consultation with the Disabilities Commissioner and the WCD Department”
The rules framed under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 also mandate providing such services. It would be in the fitness of things if similar provisions are made for adult women with disabilities who are subjected to sexual abuse.
Concerned ministries and departments should issue advisories to police stations, courts, legal services authorities, government hospitals and health centres to provide all the required support including, access to interpreters and social workers to women with disabilities who approach them.
Training/sensitisation of police officers, judiciary and medical professionals on issues concerning persons with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities and the violence they face should be made mandatory. Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) should be put in place for the police to follow throughout the country while investigating cases of sexual assault. These SOPs must refer to the specific needs of women with disabilities, at each stage of the investigation and the role of the police during trial.
Policy and legal measures to prevent and reduce violence against women with disabilities and shield them against such abuses by themselves are not enough. Necessary legal aid/help to bring the perpetrators of such crime to justice has to be provided.
Victims of such crimes have to be provided with adequate and appropriate counselling facilities. In the case of a victim getting pregnant consequent to sexual abuse, appropriate counselling and options should be offered to the victims.
Rehabilitation of such victims is also paramount. Rehabilitation measures should equip the victims with knowledge and skills to be able to engage in productive livelihood.
The Committee invited us for oral submissions twice within a span of a week giving rise to hopes that they are considering our suggestions seriously.
(With inputs from Shampa Sengupta)