photography by Margherita Coppolino

‘Although women with disability experience many of the same forms of violence that all women experience, including domestic violence and sexual assault, when gender and disability intersect, violence has unique causes, takes on unique forms and results in unique consequences.

It is now well established that violence against women with disability in Australia is far more widespread than violence amongst the general population. It is significantly more diverse in nature and more severe than for women in general. Compared to their peers, women with disability experience substantially higher levels of all forms of violence and are subjected to such violence by a greater number of perpetrators. Women with disability are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disability, and more than 70% of women with disability have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives. Women with disability in residential, institutional and service settings frequently experience sustained and multiple episodes of violence (particularly sexual violence). Twenty per cent of women with disability report a history of unwanted sex compared to 8.2% of women without disability, and the rates of sexual victimisation of women with disability range from four to 10 times higher than for other women. More than a quarter of rape cases reported by females in Australia are perpetrated against women with disability. Ninety per cent of Australian women with an intellectual disability have been subjected to sexual abuse, with more than two-thirds having been sexually abused before they turn 18 years of age.

The range and forms of violence that women with disability experience are extensive and sobering. At a minimum they include physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence and abuse, institutional violence, chemical restraint, forced or coerced sterilisation, forced contraception, forced or coerced psychiatric interventions, medical exploitation, withholding of or forced medication, violations of privacy, forced isolation, seclusion and restraint, deprivation of liberty, denial of provision of essential care, humiliation, and harassment. Women with disability frequently face unnecessary institutionalisation, denial of control over their bodies, lack of financial control, denial of social contact, employment and community participation, and denial of the right to decision-making.

The alarmingly high rates of violence against women with disability, and the multiple forms of violence they experience, are not by-products of disability as vulnerability, but rather consequences of the entrenched social exclusion they experience – multiple forms of discrimination, poverty, exclusion from the labour market, social isolation, lack of services and support, lack of autonomy, inaccessible housing and public environments.

The impact and effects of violence against women with disability are profound and cumulative, compounded by the length of time that violence endures, the severity and nature of violence, the number of perpetrators and, limited avenues available to access help to stop the violence. Women with disability also experience intersectional forms of violence that are particular to their social status, cultural identity, location, age, sexuality and gender identity. The life-long effects of violence and living in institutional environments often prevent women with disabilities from accessing support, telling their stories and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Understanding the vast array of ‘settings’ and ‘places’ in which women with disability reside and/or receive services, is a fundamental element in conceptualising gendered disability violence. For example, as well as those women with disability in Australia who live in traditional domestic settings including private and family dwellings, large numbers of women with disability still reside in and receive support in a range of ‘institutional’ and/or ‘service’ settings, such as group homes, supported residential facilities, licenced and un-licenced boarding houses, mental health community care facilities, residential aged care facilities, hostels, hospitals, prisons, foster care, respite facilities, cluster housing, and congregate care. Women with disability who experience these types of settings are at particular and significant risk of violence and abuse. They often have very little autonomy in these institutional settings. In these contexts, perpetrators can often be perceived by others (such as police and doctors) to have more credibility, which presents just another barrier to women with disability seeking help or reporting violence.

Many women with disability who have experienced violence are not believed when they disclose their experiences. Systems that are specifically designed to support women experiencing violence systematically fail to support women with disability. Where disability is present, institutional responses are often paternalistic. They frequently blame the victim, reframe violence as service or workplace ‘incidents’, or assume that the woman does not have capacity to speak to her own experiences. Crimes of violence committed against women with disability often go unreported, and when they are, they are often dismissed, ignored, covered up by service staff and or management, inadequately investigated, remain unsolved or result in minimal criminal sentences. Each of these factors contributes to the pervasive and extensive violence perpetrated against women with disability and the shroud of silence that pervades public discourse on this issue.

The empowerment of women is vital in any framework to tackle violence against women, and this is even more potent for women with disability, who have made it clear that empowerment for them comes from speaking and/or acting in their own interests; the presence of a collectivity and a basis in self-determination; and a discourse of human rights. ‘Empowerment’ in the context of women with disability, means empowerment in all aspects of life, including political and economic empowerment. This reflects the greater aim of achieving gender and ability equality by increasing disabled women’s agency and thereby reducing their vulnerability to all forms of violence.’

– Carolyn Frohmader, CEO of Women With Disabilities Australia.

Carolyn Frohmader is the Executive Director of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) and has held this position for more than 19 years, working at the national and international levels to promote and protect the human rights of women and girls with disabilities. Under Carolyn’s leadership, WWDA has received a number of prestigious awards for its ground-breaking work including the National Human Rights Award and a number of national and state violence prevention awards. Carolyn has also received a number of awards for her work with and for women and girls with disability at the national and international levels, including the National Human Rights Award [Individual] in 2013.

Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) is the national cross-disability Disabled People’s Organisation (DPO) for women and girls with all types of disability in Australia. It operates as a transnational human rights organisation and is run by women with disability, for women with disability. WWDA’s work is grounded in a human rights based framework which links gender and disability issues to a full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. WWDA represents more than 2 million disabled women in Australia, has affiliate organisations and networks of women with disability in most States and Territories, and is internationally recognised for its global leadership in advancing the human rights of women and girls with disability.

© Copyright, Carolyn Frohmader, Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)