Farida (name changed) remembers feeling very scared to go to school, but was not sure why. Since she was five, she had a speech therapist at school who used to work to “improve” her speech. Years later, Farida remembers that it was the way he used to touch her throat – an integral part of speech therapy – that would make her uneasy. He would sometimes come home to give her “special classes”. He would sexually molest her and then threaten her with dire consequences if she told anyone about it.
Farida felt that her inability to speak (and hear) was the cause of her sexual abuse. For years, she went through feelings of anger, guilt and isolation. Then she joined The Deaf Way Foundation, an organisation committed to educating, empowering and advocating for the deaf community in India. She saw that she was not alone and, to some extent, that helped her overcome negative feelings about herself.
The UN defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”.
Violence against disabled women has an added dimension. It is a silent act because, in a majority of cases, the woman either does not realise she is a victim or does not talk about the violation(s) she has faced. Often, even if it is communicated, people do not believe them. In most cases the perpetrators are not brought to book. Nancy Smith, quoting a study by the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities, Baylor College of Medicine, USA, states that women with and without disabilities experience equally high rates of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. However, women with disabilities (WwDs) reported a larger number of perpetrators and the duration of their abuse was longer.
Mohapatra and Mohanty conducted a study in Orissa that covered 729 physically and mentally challenged women. The authors describe two levels of violence against WwDs: One, of a lack of visibility and the other, a lack of opportunity in relation to men with disabilities. Disabled women thus face double discrimination. The first is that women-friendly laws and services exclude them. Second, society puts obstacles in their way preventing them from performing roles of responsibility and realising themselves as women, mothers and companions. The authors feel that the relative isolation in which WwDs live increases the potential for physical and emotional abuse. They quote other reports from India to show that sexual abuse (including incest) is quite common among women with mental and hearing disabilities.
What do the numbers show? According to the 2001 census, over 21 million people (about 2.1 per cent of the population) have some form of disability. According to the UN, in most countries, 10 per cent of the population has one or another form of disability. India’s low percentage could be either because of faulty enumeration or the cultural silence shrouding the issue (the Census of India 2011 proactively worked to correct this lacuna by training its enumerators). In 2001, in India, there were 9.3 million WwDs (or about 42-43 per cent of the total disabled population).
Despite the numbers, their voices remain unheard and the existing legal framework fails to address their problems. Data has been collected for five types of disabilities; people with disabilities in speech and hearing account for 7.5 per cent and 5.8 per cent, respectively. The proportion of women is higher in both categories.
Simran (name changed) shared how she was sexually harassed while working in a private company. She used to work in a small team on specific projects. Simran (then 22 years old) was uncomfortable with one of her colleagues. Without exactly knowing why, his words and gestures put her on edge. She confided this to a friend. The friend explained to Simran the meaning of the (sexual) words and gestures he had used and advised her to avoid him. Simran moved to another department, and when the colleague demanded to know why, she firmly explained to him (in sign) that she was not interested in making their relationship more intimate. He left her alone after that. Simran remembers feeling fear, hurt and helplessness. She found out later that other women had gone through similar experiences. However, at that time, she had no way of dealing with her sense of isolation as she did not know how to talk about it in her predominantly hearing workplace.
Given the enormity of the problem, The Deafway Foundation decided to organise a training of trainers’ workshop, in which I participated as a trainer. Sessions on various issues were conducted in sign language. Over months, the participants discussed gender, violence against women and sexuality. They also underwent step-by-step training to improve their facilitation skills.
We would introduce new concepts and wait for the flurry of reactions. Their hands, eyes and bodies would convey their thoughts and feelings. No one hesitated to express their disagreement or ask questions. As the “hearing” person, I was in the minority, and got a taste of how we, the loud majority, keep the non-hearing on the fringes of society.
The sessions on sexuality and violence led to intense discussions. The participants were familiar with the canvas of the deaf world; it shocked them to realise violence happens to hearing women too. They discussed fear and “weakness”. Why do (deaf) women get scared to be out in the dark? Why are they unable to stop abuse? Can deaf women be safe? Women are weak and really, there is nothing anyone can do (a statement, not a question).
We debated terms like strength and weakness, disempowerment and power, courage and cowardice. Everyone shared personal instances of violence; we would talk about how violence affects the way women think and act. Women are always vulnerable to attack and disability of any kind compounds the situation, leaving her drained of the energy to reclaim her body and soul. In life, no one tells her how to leave behind pain, anger and bitterness and move to a place where she can tap into her inner steel. They have to build their own strength, take help from each other to be able to cope and believe in themselves.
Women have to act to change society’s ideas of who they are and what they are capable of doing. WwDs have to work doubly hard to communicate to and shake up a largely uncaring world. By the end of workshop, the group seemed to be convinced about this.
Farida’s and Simran’s narratives are true stories. They were participants at the workshop. They were both affected by the violence; they also gathered the courage to do something about it. When Farida understood the rampant abuse that happens in deaf schools in India, she expressed her desire to hold sessions with young deaf girls to teach them to be safe from predatory offenders. Simran, too, passionately believes that girls need to be taught about violence and abuse and that this should be an integral part of education at deaf schools.
The problem is deep-rooted; the incidence of the crime is extensive. The world of “normates” (a word used by disability rights activists to mean those who frame rigid rules about ability/disability) needs to get more sensitised about the vulnerabilities of disabled women. And then take a stand. On the one hand, they could support the struggles of these women to overcome widespread discrimination; on the other, they could also proactively try to prevent such violence.
This would go a long way in blurring the lines between “us” and “them” and move towards creating a more equal world.