Violence Against Women with Disabilities

Last updated February 2009

Violence against women with disabilities is a global problem. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), approximately 300 million women around the world have mental and physical disabilities. Women with disabilities comprise 10 percent of all women worldwide.  In low and middle income countries, women constitute 75 percent of all disabled people. Women with disabilities are more vulnerable to violence and other human rights abuses.

HRW notes that disabled women and girls face the same spectrum of human rights abuses that non-disabled women face, but their social isolation and dependence magnifies these abuses and their consequences. Women with disabilities tend to have lower educational, financial, professional, and social success than both non-disabled females and their disabled male counterparts.  Because women with disabilities are more isolated than most underrepresented groups, their plight typically has not been addressed. Women with disabilities therefore warrant unique attention when examining abuse and violence in the world.

Perpetrators of abuse against disabled women include family members, intimate partners, caregivers, and peers, and the range of abuse perpetrated is staggering.  Disability Awareness in Action has reported that women with disabilities suffer sexual abuse, forced sterilization, and female genital mutilation.  HRW has reported that women with disabilities have been subjected to marital restrictions, involuntary abortions, and forced relinquishment of their children.  In Africa, where the myth exists that having sex with a virgin can cure a person of HIV/AIDS, women and girls with disabilities are targeted for rape because they are presumed to be asexual and thus virgins.

Because many disabled women are placed in institutions by families who are unwilling or unable to care for them, the institutional setting is a common place for abuse.  According to a publication from Hesperian Foundation, examples of institutional abuse are:

  • forced sex with workers, caretakers, or other residents
  • being beaten, slapped, or hurt
  • forced sterilization or abortions
  • being locked in a room alone
  • ice baths or cold showers as punishment
  • forced medication (tranquilizers)
  • having to undress or be naked in front of other people
  • watching other people be abused or hurt
  • being tied down or put in restraints

Disabled women have generally been marginalized in both the women’s movement and the disabled movement because they are seen as being on the peripheries of both groups. The issue of violence against women with disabilities deserves particular focus, as their voices may be lost not only by their marginalization, but also by the particular attributes of their disabilities and the isolation in which those disabilities often place them.

Among Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries, many national governments have increased protections for disabled persons. For example, Albania, Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Ukraine have laws prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons, usually in employment, education, and access to health care or other public services contexts. In most of these countries, though, discrimination remains a problem in at least one context. In the Slovak Republic, disabled students still have trouble accessing school buildings and materials, and employers may be paying less than the minimum wage to severely disabled workers in some cases. In Moldova, a local non-governmental organization (NGO) says discrimination against disabled students remains a widespread problem.

Recent laws require new public buildings to be accessible to disabled persons. Albania, Armenia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Ukraine have such laws, though several countries have not fully implemented them due to lack of funding, enforcement, or other reasons.  Lack of accessible public transportation may be another issue in the region; one Armenian city created a trolleybus designed with disabled persons in mind.

But there is much more work to be done toward greater understanding of, and protection for, the mentally disabled. In Albania, the ombudsman “recommended a major legal, organizational, and budgetary review of the country's mental health care system” after inspecting facilities in three cities. In the Slovak Republic, NGOs say psychiatric institutions and hospitals still use “cage beds,” although such physical restraints (along with nonphysical restraints) are illegal in “social care homes.” Likewise, in the Ukraine, NGOs have reported patient abuse at psychiatric facilities. The situation may be worse at children’s facilities, where there have been cases of deliberate underfeeding and financial exploitation.

On 13 December 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by General Assembly Resolution 106 (A/RES/61/106), and opened it for signatures on 30 March 2007. It entered into force on 3 May 2008 and currently has 138 signatories representing 50 parties. Article 1 says the Convention’s purpose is to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.” It also broadly defines persons with disabilities, saying they “include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” Of particular note is Article 6 on “Women with disabilities” and Article 16 on “Freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.” Also of interest are Article 4 on signatories’ “General obligations” and Article 34, which establishes a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Committee’s first session was from 23-27 February 2009 in Geneva.

Of the CEE and FSU countries mentioned above, these countries have ratified this Convention: Armenia (30 March 2007), Estonia (25 September 2007), Lithuania (30 March 2007), Moldova (30 March 2007), Slovakia (26 September 2007), Slovenia (signed on 30 March 2007 and formally ratified on 24 April 2008) and Ukraine (24 September 2008). Only Albania has taken no action.

There is also an Optional Protocol to this Convention. The UN adopted, opened for signature, and entered it into force on the same days as the original Convention (above). Currently there are 81 signatories representing 29 parties. These CEE and FSU countries have ratified the Optional Protocol: Armenia (30 March 2007), Lithuania (30 March 2007), Slovakia (26 September 2007), Slovenia (signed on 30 March 2007 and formally ratified on 24 April 2008) and Ukraine (24 September 2008). These countries have taken no action on the Optional Protocol: Albania, Estonia and Moldova.

The UN also released a handbook in October 2007 entitled From Exclusion to Equality: Realizing the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (alternate title: Handbook for Parliamentarians on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities).

Compiled from:

United Nations, Enable, From Exclusion to Equality: Realizing the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (alternate title: Handbook for Parliamentarians on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) (October 2007) (HTML; page includes link to PDF).

United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2009).

United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (entry into force 3 May 2008).

United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (entry into force 3 May 2008).

United Nations, Treaty Collection, Status of Treaties: Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (last updated 25 February 2009).

United Nations, Treaty Collection, Status of Treaties: Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (last updated 25 February 2009).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Albania (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Armenia (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Estonia (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Lithuania (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Moldova (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Slovak Republic (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Slovenia (11 March 2008).

U.S. Department of State (Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007: Ukraine (11 March 2008).