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Accessible Justice: Sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities

Today is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Created in  1992, the United Nations established IDPD as both an annual celebration of people with disabilities as well as a call to mobilize support and action for critical issues relating to the rights and inclusion of persons with disabilities and to draw attention to the benefits of an inclusive and accessible society for all.

Around the world, women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to various forms of gender-based violence, including domestic and sexual violence. They face intersecting forms of discrimination based on their sex, gender, and disability and are often denied access to justice and protection mechanisms. While survivors generally face barriers in reporting their abuse and accessing victim support services, those living with disabilities encounter unique challenges that are often overlooked by the criminal justice system, the government, and civil society writ large. 

Barriers to justice for woman and girls with disabilities

Like many aspects of society, the criminal justice system has not been designed for persons with disabilities. From a lack of wheelchair accessible entrances at courts and police stations to insufficient training for legal professionals who serve clients with disabilities, to societal stigmas and misconceptions about sexual abuse experienced by persons with disabilities, survivors with disabilities rarely receive criminal justice responses and services that are tailored appropriately to their needs.

We have been working with partners in Eurasia to draw attention to the intersecting forms of discrimination that survivors of sexual violence with disabilities face when trying to access justice. In “Effectively Prosecuting and Adjudicating Sexual Violence Case: A Manual for Practitioners in Georgia,” a practical guide developed with UN Women and the Council of Europe developed in collaboration with Georgian authorities, we highlighted some of the legal and criminal justice response barriers and ways for overcoming them, as well as, stereotypes and vulnerabilities that make it difficult for survivors with disabilities to be believed when reporting incidents of sexual violence.

Even though rape is about power and control, not about desirability, evidence provided by a woman with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities may be considered unreliable based on discriminatory or stereotyped ideas. Examples of these may include such things as an assumption that her condition prevents her from providing an accurate account of the circumstances of the case or that a woman with disabilities would not be sexually desirable so could not have been targeted for rape.

Women and girls living with disabilities are often specifically targeted for abuse because of their more vulnerable status and yet they also face additional barriers in accessing justice and reporting their abuse. In addition to practical obstacles such as inaccessible buildings or reporting mechanisms, women with disabilities also confront harmful stereotypes that frame them as unreliable witnesses and imperfect victims. 

Engaging with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

In our submission to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on Georgia, we asked the committee to consider investigating several points with regard to the protection of the rights of survivors with disabilities, including:

  • In what ways do the authorities provide women with disabilities with gender and age-sensitive information on how to avoid, recognize and report violence and abuse? 
  • What mechanisms are there in place to remove barriers for women and girls with disabilities to be able to come forward and report violence to the police? 
  • What are the safeguards that the authorities have in place to make sure that women with disabilities who are victims of gender-based violence do not face discrimination during criminal proceedings and are not denied justice based on their status? 
  • Do the authorities have a specific protocol to investigate violence against women and girls with disabilities, in particular sexual violence, including methodologies for interviewing the survivors and witnesses? 
  • What physical, cognitive and psychological recovery, rehabilitation and social integration services are available for women with disabilities who become victims of violence, in particular of sexual violence?

Read our full set of questions

By asking these questions and providing practical guidance to investigators, prosecutors, and justice, we can all begin to make sure sexual violence is prevented and, if it occurs, then accountability mechanisms are accessible to everyone.

This International Day of Persons with Disabilities, we must commit to building a truly inclusive women’s rights movement that offers support, solutions, and justice for all