Disability and Sexual Abuse
|March 13, 2014||Posted by Shehla Rashid under Politics, Women|
Last month, a woman who is partially blind was raped by an auto-driver in Thiruvananthapuram in the South Indian state of Kerala. Realising that she had difficulty boarding the auto, he took advantage of the situation and drove her to a secluded spot where he raped her. Somehow, when we think of sexual abuse, we do not think of the abuse faced by men, women and children with disabilities. Acts of sexual violence against women may be universal but it is now well recognised that women in some particular social contexts are additionaly vulnerable to rape and harassment. One of these situations is conflict. One of the biggest contributions of third wave feminism is that silence around issues of conflict, impunity and the use of rape as a weapon of war was broken. However, the silence around issues of disability and sexual abuse is yet to be broken it seems.
It goes without saying that disability makes any man or woman more vulnerable to violence in general and to sexual violence in particular. But it is important to understand how different forms of disability make someone additionally vulnerable to abuse.
In case of mental disabilities, the victim may not even be aware of the abuse due to lack of the ability to comprehend the situation. It is also highly difficult in these situations to detect abuse because the victim may not be able to tell anyone. In fact, in many cases, the offenders are family members or close relatives. If it results in a pregnancy, the family member may easily manage to get the pregnancy terminated on the pretext that some unknown person caused the pregnancy. In fact, one of the major contentions around the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPD) Bill is clause 106(f) that allows for termination of pregnancy without consent of the pregnant woman on grounds of “severe” disability. It entitles the guardian of the woman to take all legally binding decisions on her behalf. This clause can be highly problematic in situations such as the aforementioned, where a family member is the abuser. The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971, in violation of the UNCRPD, allows for non-consensual termination of pregnancy in case the woman is “mentally ill”. However, the draft RPD Bill goes one step further to extend this to women with any kind of “severe” disability! In the Suchita Srivastava vs. Chandigarh adinistration case of 2009, the Supreme Court upheld the wish of a rape victim who was mentally unsound to bear a child. The RPD Bill 2013 contravenes this case law as well as the UNCRPD.
Blind men and women are no less vulnerable, as they do not even know who the abuser is. They can be easily gagged, drugged and attacked. While visually impaired women are trying to assert their rights as equals, their experience of societal hurdles becomes magnified by their sheer inability to see. All women have been abused on buses and other modes of public transport. While visually endowed women can, at times, ward off potential offenders by their vigilant gaze, visually impaired women may not even be able to catch hold of the offender in crowded spaces. If the woman is deaf by birth, she is most likely to be unable to speak or may choose not to speak- in other words, mute. Whether her speech is impaired per se or because of being deaf, she may not be able to report instances of sexual abuse except through writing or sign language.
In all of these cases, the mere physical or mental inability to report sexual abuse is not the only hurdle. Women or men, by the very fact of being affected by a disability, even locomotive, may lack the self-confidence required to speak up. Even if they do speak up, there’s no guarantee that they will not be blamed instead. In a majority of the cases, the caregiver or guardian is the offender, making it nearly impossible for the victim to speak up. Clause 106 (d) of the draft RPD Bill states, “Whoever being in a position to dominate the will of a child or woman with disability and uses that position to exploit sexually shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.” This clause shows the amount of laziness that has gone into the drafting of this law. Firstly, it is not drafted in a gender-neutral fashion. Secondly, what happens to the victim if the person who is “in a position to dominate” her “will” is a guardian? Is she transferred to a rehab? These are crucial questions that need clear answers. Any attempt to protect the rights of the disabled will be incomplete without an assertion of the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled women and a recognition of sexual abuse faced by disabled men and women.