Women with disabilities: India’s ‘invisible victims’

Women and girls with disabilities in India are at a higher risk of sexual violence, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

New Delhi, India – Women and girls with disabilities in India are at a higher risk of sexual violence, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday.

The New York-based rights body said that the challenges faced by the survivors of sexual violence to get justice are even greater.

Nidhi Goyal, one of the authors of the 61-page report Invisible Victims of Sexual Violence: Access to Justice for Women and Girls with Disabilities in India, said the infrastructure in India is not friendly for a person with a disability and being a woman adds an additional layer of difficulty.

“When you are trying to move in the cities or navigate, then you have to ask for help. And when you ask for help, you make yourself more vulnerable to any kind of inappropriate touch, some harassment,” Goyal said.

“So it doesn’t allow you to be independent, it puts you more at risk.”

As a person with a vision disability, Goyal feels she can get by through trusting people. And on an individual level, she can ask for help, be confident and cautious.

But she worries for people in wheelchairs. “For them, entering certain spaces becomes a big challenge. They have to be lifted or carried. People with disability have been often harassed when this is happening,” Goyal said.

‘Indifferent judges’

Binni Kumari was six months old when her parents realised she was visually impaired. Her neighbours and relatives told her parents, marginal farmers living in a small town in Uttar Pradesh state, that a blind child would be difficult to bring up, and it would be better off to kill her.

Despite such initial obstacles from her family, Kumari survived and came to India’s capital, New Delhi. She studied and now has a degree in political science and a diploma in computer application.

She works as a manager of a help desk for the visually impaired. Kumari loves her independence.

Every morning, she takes a cycle-rickshaw to work. Earlier, she could hire any cycle-rickshaws to take her to work, but now she has to depend on a particular person.

“The difficulty was that we don’t know the psyche of the person who is helping us to commute,” she said. 

Kumari has escaped sexual harassment, but not all disabled women are lucky.

Activist Ratnabali Ray has been following a case from Gurugram, a suburb of New Delhi, where a woman with a psychosocial disability was raped by seven men.

The survivor is now facing a difficult time in the court from the accused and their family.

According to Ray, the first struggle for the survivor was that the police refused to lodge a First Information Report (FIR). “They did not consider the woman with a mental disability a legitimate entity to file an FIR,” she said.

The legislation is just the first step, next comes enforcement, enabling the legislation to help the people.

by Meenakshi Ganguly, Human Rights Watch

A Human Rights Watch report published last November found that women and girls who survive rape and other sexual violence often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals.

“The police are frequently unwilling to register their complaints; victims and witnesses receive little protection,” the report said.

Ray says that after the FIR was lodged, the second battle began inside the court-room. “Adjudicating cases of rape for women with psychosocial disability is a traumatic task,” she said.

“The judges are completely indifferent to the distress that the woman is going through within the courtroom. The courts are very cold and indifferent, and every minute detail of the rape incident has to be legally categorised, therefore, there is a contestation of our facts and their facts,” Ray said.

Legal reforms

Amba Girish Salelkar is an advocate who works for the Equals Centre for Promotion of Social Justice, a non-profit based in the southern city of Chennai.

Salelkar says that the judges need to be more sensitive to cases where women with disabilities are involved.

“First thing judges learn as law students is that a person who is of unsound mind is incapable of giving consent of contracting or making decisions, and therefore, they carry the bias with them wherever they go,” Salelkar said.

Unfortunately, the way the law is taught, disability, especially mental disability, is always seen to make a person inferior and activists feel that should change.

After the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student in December 2012, the Indian government strengthened laws on sexual violence.

India has made important legal reforms to the Criminal Law and there are several provisions now to protect the rights of women and girls with disabilities, but the implementation of these reforms has still not been successful.

“After 2013, we have strong laws but unfortunately, after that, the state thinks that the job is done. It is not. The legislation is just the first step, next comes enforcement, enabling the legislation to help the people,” Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch said.

Rights activists say that the Indian government needs to raise awareness of the rights of women and girls with disabilities, not only for educating the women and girls themselves but also the larger community and public.