Six lessons for disability-inclusive gender-based violence programming

By Beate Ringwald

At the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI) Forum, a group of outstanding and passionate women helped me gain a deeper understanding of what it could look like to leave no woman behind in development policy and programmes. As women with disabilities claimed space to exercise agency and overcome exclusion, they took me on a journey that made power and intersectionality theories come to life.

Lesson 1: Women with disabilities experience unique forms of violence

The testimonies of the multiple forms of violence experienced by women with disabilities during the “Leaving no woman behind” event made the intersecting nature of power dynamics visible. These testimonies can be read in “What violence means to us” and other publications by women with disabilities. They reveal how gender, disability, poverty, young age, conflict settings intersect and contribute to inequality, vulnerability and marginalization.

For instance, lack of education and economic opportunities results in dependency and exaggerated risk of experiencing violence among women with disabilities. Different disabilities expose women to unique forms of violence. Those who use violence against them assume that they can get away with it without being prosecuted because women with disabilities cannot see them, cannot describe what happened, or may not be believed and so on.

Lesson 2: Women with disabilities are a diverse group

Although disability is a source of vulnerability, women with disabilities are a heterogeneous group. When abled people treat them as one, they ignore their diversity and reduce them to a perceived impairment. Women with disabilities are first and foremost people, who have, like all people, complex and unique identities.

Lesson 3: Women with disabilities are left out of policies and programmes

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities protects and promotes “the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.” In other words, people with disabilities have the same rights as every other person. This includes the right to be free from violence and discrimination, the right to health and safety, the right to information and services, and the right to freedom of choice. This list is by no means exhaustive.

That there is much room for improvement becomes obvious in the lived experiences of women with disabilities, as well as the existing national policy documents, which fall short of protecting their basic rights. This group of people is, if at all, insufficiently considered in existing gender frameworks, and disability-focussed policies fail to address sexual and reproductive health and rights, including violence against women. As a result, programmes and services are not inclusive.

Lesson 4: Women with disabilities are excluded from decisions and services

People with disabilities are not involved in decisions that affect them and are often excluded from services. They face a variety of barriers in accessing services which are physical, structural, social and cultural. For example, women with disabilities may fail to access services because the road to the facility that provides the services is not passable; they are excluded from sexuality education and may not be aware of the service offered because they are either not seen as capable of forming sexual relationships or are assumed to be asexual.

Other challenges result from attitudinal and communication barriers. These may include lack of information and consent forms in Braille format, as well as perceptions and attitudes of caregivers and service providers that lead to the exclusion of women with disabilities. The intersecting nature of gender, disability, age, education and income determine women’s struggles to access quality services and the full enjoyment of their rights.

Lesson 5: Women with disabilities need and want to be included

Women with disabilities need to be included in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes that affect them, including those that seek to prevent and respond to violence. While this is unquestionable, practitioners struggle with the ‘how’. The women activists at the SRVI Forum assured us that there was no need to reinvent the wheel, because tools for disability inclusive gender-based violence programmes already exist.

Lesson 6: Women with disabilities are claiming spaces of power

Women with disabilities have the awareness and confidence (also known as “power within”), and capacities (referred to as “power to”) for actively seeking opportunities (seen as “power with”) to build alliances (and exercise “power to”) to demand inclusive services and programmes. Hope and opportunity were expressed in the phrase, “the best is yet to come” which I heard more than once that morning.

Making it work” is the motto of a gender and disability project, yet could also be an ARISE motto. ARISE and my affiliated PhD research project offer opportunities and obligation for making inclusion a reality. We should be grateful to women with disabilities and their “Leave No Woman Behind” call to action. It is great that women with disabilities claim spaces of power to demand and enforce changes. But the burden should not be on them. It is also upon researchers, policy makers and service providers to open closed spaces of power and involve women with disabilities in all their diversity.

I feel privileged for having met these outstanding activists who took time to take me on a journey into their lives. They demonstrated how as a group of people, who are marginalized within existing power systems due to their gender and disability, actively organise and challenge those conditions that put them at risk of violence and exclusion.



About the session: Leaving no woman behind

I am grateful for the panellists and organizers of the “Leaving no woman behind: Tips and tricks for Inclusive GBV programming“ satellite event: Alessandra Aresu, Humanity & Inclusion; Carol Bosch, Cape Mental Health; Grace Jerry, Inclusive Friends Association Nigeria; Maria Bakaroudis, UNFPA Southern, Eastern Africa Region; Sophie Pecourt, Humanity & Inclusion/ Making It Work Gender and Disability project; and Yetneberesh Nigussie, Technical Adviser Making It Work project.

About the conference: SVRI Forum

SVRI Forum is the world’s key research conference on violence against women and other forms of violence driven by gender inequality in low- and middle-income countries. The 6th biennial Forum was held in Cape Town, South Africa from 21th to 25th October 2019 with over 750 delegates, more than 200 oral presentations, nearly 100 Four Minute Presentations, and various pre-conference workshops and participant-driven satellite events.