A woman with disability carries a jerrycan at a camp for internally displaced people in North Darfur, Sudan. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID / CC BY-NC-ND

CANBERRA — At the Global Disability Summit in July, governments, NGOs, multilateral institutions, and more vowed to help address the issue of violence facing people with disability.

Gender is an important factor in heightening risks to people with disabilities, as is age. Children and the elderly are among the high-risk groups. Inadequate legal and social frameworks, meanwhile, often allow violence to continue unmonitored.

A recent report from CBM Australia looked at the gaps in equality facing women and girls with disabilities, a Vanuatu case study highlighted that because those with a disability are seen as “powerless” and “hopeless,” a social environment is created that facilitates violence. The findings echo Australia’s aid program 2013 research on the “triple jeopardy” of gender-based violence, human rights violence, and disability in Cambodia.

Many of the solutions proposed by delegates last month focused on ways to facilitate social and systematic changes.

Three case studies from the summit highlight the diversity of challenges and range of solutions to address violence against people with disabilities.

Guidelines for governments and service providers: UNFPA

The United Nations Population Fund was among the multilaterals making commitments to address violence, by focusing on the barriers to accessing services, assistance, and reporting.

A global study beginning in September will aim to address stereotypes, attitudes, and behaviors regarding disability, with related programs to be implemented from 2019. And guidelines will support rights-based and gender-responsive services to address gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and young people with disabilities.

“The guidelines have been developed to offer practical and concrete actions governments, service providers, and other relevant stakeholders can take to meet the needs of women and young persons with disabilities,” Luis Mora, chief of the gender, human rights, and culture branch at UNFPA, explained to Devex.

“The guidelines outline concrete action items to ensure availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of SRHR [sexual and reproductive health] services and GBV [gender-based violence] prevention and response, for women and young persons with disabilities.”

Mora explained that plans are underway to roll out the guidelines, with UNFPA's regional and country offices to implement at country levels. They will be supported by continued advocacy and capacity development including training workshops. Other sessions with relevant partners are expected to support this process.

Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there are obligations for governments to “exercise due diligence to prevent and respond to gender-based violence against persons with disabilities,” Mora explained.

“States must take action to prevent violence, protect its victims, prosecute perpetrators, and provide redress to survivors,” he said.

Through its programs, UNFPA aims to provide the support channels that will help governments achieve these obligations.

Better legal access: Chance for Childhood

Chance for Childhood supports African countries by helping street children, children affected by conflict, children in prison, and children with disabilities.

Addressing violence against children living with disabilities is an important part of their programs — and was a key part of their commitment at the Global Disability Summit, where they pledged to support their partners in Rwanda and Uganda to access justice for girls and women with disabilities.

“In 2019 and 2020, Chance for Childhood will work with the Rwandan National Police and the Justice Sector in Uganda to improve the reporting of incidents of abuse against girls with disabilities, in particular with communication disabilities, ensure accessible and inclusive reporting channels and adequate assistance to ensure their full and equal participation throughout judicial processes,” Chance for Childhood said in their commitment.

“We want a justice system that is more child-friendly and accessible to those with specific needs,” Beatrice Cami, director of fundraising and marketing at Chance for Childhood, told Devex.

“For instance, children with a hearing impairment have the right to a sign language interpreter when being supported by police officers and children living in remote villages should know how to report abuse and to whom.”

In building a safer society for children with disabilities, Chance for Childhood is aiming to work with children and young people, community leaders, paraprofessionals, and caregivers — a variety of groups and individuals key in addressing legal and social barriers.

“We see the merit and importance of working with children with disabilities and their families in the community to document their needs, challenges, and service delivery gaps, whilst simultaneously engaging with decision-makers and budget holders to advocate for policy change or prioritization of specific needs,” Cami said.

“For instance, in Kenya, our community violence prevention activists are responsible for identifying children at risk of abuse and liaising closely with local law enforcement officials, health clinics, child rights NGOs, and service providers for swift referrals. We are calling for similar schemes to be set up elsewhere.”

Violence against older women with disabilities: HelpAge International

HelpAge International attended the Global Disability Summit to focus on the right of all older people to lead dignified, healthy, and secure lives. For older women aged 50 and over, addressing the heightened risk of violence is important.

“Violence in older age can occur in multiple, often intersecting forms based on gender, age, and disability,” Magda Rossmann, HelpAge International’s global adviser for violence, abuse, and neglect explained to Devex.

“It is committed by perpetrators who may include intimate partners, family members — including male and female adult children — caregivers or members of the wider community. Many older women experience one or more types of physical, sexual, financial, and psychological violence, abuse, and neglect.”

For HelpAge International, an important step in addressing this is building a stronger evidence base — with a focus on the violence, abuse, and neglect within development and humanitarian settings. India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Malawi, and Tanzania will be the focus of their programs.

“There is general invisibility of the violence, abuse, and neglect experienced by older women and men, including those with disabilities, despite its widespread nature,” Rossman said.

“The majority of data collected on gender-based violence focuses on women of ‘reproductive age’ which results in a lack of knowledge on precise and often intersecting types of violence against older women with disabilities, and on the drivers that lead to it. This results in a lack of appropriate and accessible prevention and response services.”

HelpAge International is using advocacy, campaigns, and project work to raise awareness at different levels of gender-based violence experienced by older women with disabilities. The organization is also advocating for a U.N. convention on the rights of older people that would include explicit provisions on the prevention and protection of older women — including those with disabilities — from violence, abuse, and neglect.

“Internally, we are also working to standardize our collection, analysis, and use of sex, age, and disability-disaggregated data using Washington Group [disability set of] questions across the organization,” Rossman said. “This will enable us to better monitor and learn about specific issues faced by older women and men with disabilities.”

Building awareness of violence in the disability setting

New partners are encouraged to contribute in drawing awareness to the issues faced by people with disabilities which, according to CBM Australia’s Policy and Advocacy Manager Rachel Wallbridge, is a “community responsibility” to address.

“CBM and our partners work to challenge attitudes and norms around violence and remove barriers for people with disabilities to access justice,” she explained to Devex.

“Our primary focus is on empowering women and girls with disabilities to speak out about their rights and needs. We value the roles that women with disabilities can play in leading their communities, and the ways that this leadership can shape communities to become safer, more inclusive places for all people with disabilities.”

In supporting social change to address the issue of violence against people with disability, Wallbridge identified a range of areas needing to be addressed where partners could assist. This includes access to education, jobs, health care, changes in gendered expectation of caregiving, and leadership support.

“CBM strives to support people with disabilities by challenging and removing barriers so that women, men, girls, and boys with disabilities are accessing services they need, achieving their full potential and playing an active role within their community,” she said.

The road forward in highlighting, addressing, and eliminating violence against people with disability will require a combined and determined effort of government, private sector, and non-profit partners to build social change.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.