Disability advocates say the discussion around domestic violence has so far excluded the experience of victims living with a disability.
Tackling domestic violence may have finally found its place on the national agenda, but disability advocates say the discussion has so far “obscured” and “excluded” the experience of victims living with a disability.
Aminath Didi, a researcher for a joint project between the University of New South Wales and Women with Disabilities Australia, spoke at a domestic violence conference on Wednesday in Sydney.
She said this exclusion happened despite the fact violence suffered by women with disabilities tended to be “more extensive, suffered over longer periods of time and more severe” than violence against men with disability or violence against women without a disability.
Women and girls with disability made up 20% of Australia’s female population or about two million, she said, and came from a diverse range of sexual identity, ethnicity, employment status and type of impairment.
A 2010 NSW domestic and family violence action plan called Stop the Violence, End the Silence found that violence “intensified in frequency, extent and nature when gender and disability intersect”, Didi said.
Women with disabilities were more likely to experience violence in residential and institutional settings and abuse could include the withholding of medicine and assistance devices such as wheelchairs, or refusal to assist with daily needs like bathing, dressing or eating.
Victims living in rural and remote communities were further disadvantaged due to a lack of services, information and awareness. And such problems were often seen as secondary to more basic needs like access to nutritious food, shelter and security.
Part of the problem lay in an inconsistent definition of what constitutes violence against women, Didi maintained. “It is generally conceptualised in the context of spousal or intimate partner or family violence, which frequently excludes what women with disability experience, in the settings where they live,” she said.
She said violence against women with disability extended beyond private and family dwellings into a range of institutions, such as group homes, hospitals, prisons, special schools and aged care homes.
And these forms of violence could include chemical restraint, forced or coerced sterilisation, forced contraception, forced or coerced psychiatric interventions, violations of privacy, forced isolation and deprivation of liberty.
“In these settings, violence is considered a workplace issue,” Didi said, “and not a human rights violation and potential criminal act.”
Joining Didi at the Ending Domestic Violence Criterion conference was project chair and co-author of the 2015 report Preventing Violence against Women and Girls with Disabilities, Leanne Dowse, who said women with disability “continue to fall through a whole range of legislative, policy and service gaps”.
This was the result of the “multiple and intercepting forms of discrimination which make them more likely to experience or be at risk of violence”.
“Violence against women and girls with disability in all its form remains widespread and largely unaddressed,” Dowse said, and this was despite “clear obligations” by international human rights law to do so.
Dowse said in relation to domestic violence against women with disabilities, several international human rights monitoring bodies had raised serious concerns about Australia’s low rate of reporting, prosecution and conviction of perpetrators, and an ongoing lack of data, inclusive legislation policy, services and support.
Figures on the prevalence and incidence on violence against women with disabilities were “hard to come by”, she said, “largely because our national statistical collection processes don’t take disability status into account.”
But that limited evidence indicated more than 70% of women with disability experience a violent sexual encounter at least once in their lifetime and were 40 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than women without disability.
“Legislation policy and service responses tend to view disability as an add-on group, whose needs are exceptional to the central prevention agenda,” Dowse said. “This means efforts and approaches to prevent violence against women in Australia are piecemeal and inconsistent in definitions and scope.”
She said it was time to “demand accountability from government and from other duty bearers in recognising and addressing the rights of women with disability to live free from violence”.