Prevention of Violence Against Women with Disabilities

last updated 4 August 2008

Prevention efforts specifically targeting women with disabilities who have been victims of violence are imperative. A study from Baylor College of Medicine reports that, while many programs are aimed at helping women victims of domestic abuse escape their abusers, such services are rarely used by disabled women who are victims of abuse. Possible reasons are that battered women shelters often are not handicap accessible, and the staff members of these shelters often are not trained to communicate with women who have disabilities that impede communication. 

One of the main worldwide efforts to prevent violence against disabled women lies in the UN Convention itself. Any State that signs the Convention agrees to put in place effective legislation and policies, including women-focused legislation and policies, to ensure that instances of exploitation, violence and abuse against persons with disabilities are identified, investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted. Each State must also make reports to the UN regarding progress made in implementing the Convention requirements within two years of agreeing to the Convention.

The UN was active in protecting women with disabilities even before the Convention was ratified. For example, according to a bulletin from the International Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in 2003, the UN worked with the government of South Africa, recognizing the need for equal rights and protection for disabled women. In the same year, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) hosted a workshop in Thailand, with its purpose in part being to enhance the understanding of “gender mainstreaming” among NGOs and self-help organizations of persons with disabilities. “Gender mainstreaming” is described as the public policy concept of assessing the differential implications for women and men in any planned policy action.

Other international organizations have also been very influential in protecting the rights of women with disabilities. The Global Fund for Women has been important in working with organizations worldwide to effect social justice for women around the world. It has teamed up with Mobility International USA (MIUSA) to help fund MIUSA’s Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability.  This conference brings together disabled women from all over the world who are in leadership roles in their respective societies.  It provides an opportunity for them to speak about their experiences with abuse and violence, and about how each has overcome the mistreatment. Providing such an opportunity allows these women to bring stories of survival, as well as methods of combating abuse, back to their own countries.

In the United States, the National Organization for Women (NOW) Foundation has made preventing violence against disabled women a priority. For example, in 2003, NOW sponsored a three day forum focusing on the rights of disabled women. Workshop sessions discussed issues such as violence against women in the mental health system, ending caregiver violence toward disabled women, and collaborative efforts to end all violence against women with disabilities.

California has made headway at the state level regarding such prevention efforts. According to Transforming Communities, The California Department of Public Health has sponsored workshops directed at disability service providers and domestic/sexual violence prevention advocates. Participants who attend these workshops are better able to: 1) identify the prevalence of violence against women with disabilities;  2) develop an understanding of domestic and sexual violence and how this intersects with a woman’s disability;  3) discuss screening and safety planning specific to women with disabilities; and 4) develop collaborative partnerships and create prevention oriented action plans.

Another important prevention effort is the advent of self-defense lessons catering specifically to women with disabilities. Many experts stress the mental empowerment and assertiveness that accompany completion of a self-defense course. Another expert, Lydia la Rivière-Zijdel, focuses on combining these mental advantages with giving women the physical ability to fight off a real attacker. By learning what actions can be taken within her own physical abilities, a disabled woman may be able to protect herself from violence in a manner previously thought to be outside of her control.