(Mumbai) — I often say that the minute I started losing my sight, when I was 15, I started seeing more clearly.
I see the invisibility that surrounds women with disabilities like me. I see the stigma that considers us less than women. I see the people who say that women like me are asexual and less sexually desirable. These negative voices often overpower the millions of women with disabilities in India, South Asia and around the world.
The brutal gang rape and murder of a young woman, Jyoti Pandey, in New Delhi in 2012 created a national uproar and sparked a global discussion about sexual violence against women. Women with disabilities were largely absent from this debate. And yet they are just as — or even more — likely to be victims of such violence.
Hidden away, considered less likely to complain about their abusers, women with disabilities are more prone to discrimination, abuse and violence. Their concerns remain unheard and their rights unrealized. They are less likely to be educated and empowered to speak up when they are victims of sexual violence. And if they do, they are frequently not believed. Justice remains a distant dream.
I interviewed a number of women and girls with disabilities who were raped and gang raped in India and listened to their journeys to seek justice for the Human Rights Watch report “Invisible Victims of Sexual Violence,” which was issued earlier this year.
In one case, a 26-year-old woman with a psychosocial disability who was drugged and gang-raped, told me: “The police asked me very nasty things, like how it felt for me. I told them I was totally unconscious, so how would I know? The police said things like, ‘She’s mental, why should I pay attention to her?’” Discrediting women with these psychosocial and intellectual disabilities is common in daily life, but when the legal system takes this attitude, there is little hope that they will get justice for crimes against them.
Even before approaching the justice system, survivors of sexual violence and their families often face barriers in their communities. When a 23-year-old woman with multiple disabilities in a remote village in Hooghly District, West Bengal, was gang-raped in 2014, the villagers took sides. Many were concerned that “productive” men in their prime were jailed because of an “unproductive” woman who could not walk or talk “properly.” Her disability made the woman worthless in their eyes.
Since 2013, India has taken important steps by adopting strong laws against sexual violence, including provisions to support women and girls with disabilities, but enforcement and implementation remain weak. And the battle against stigma and for empowerment of women and girls with disabilities has only just begun.
A key challenge is that we, women with disabilities, are largely invisible to policymakers. Policies require data and the Indian government does not collect this data. The National Crime Records Bureau, which compiles data on crimes in India, does not disaggregate its data on violence against women by disability. The central government’s Nirbhaya Fund — established after the 2012 gang rape — for “prevention, protection and rehabilitation” of survivors of sexual violence, does not explicitly mention women with disabilities.
Today, research and media reports tell us that women and girls with disabilities in India in institutions, special schools, at homes and outside continue to be abused, tortured and raped and the outrage around these human rights violations is hardly present. We women with disabilities are not only invisible in society, we are also largely absent from the global debate on sexual violence. The #MeToo movement needs to include women like me too.