United Nations Special Rapporteur’s paper on violence against women with disabilities

Rashida Manjoo - special rapporteur for the United Nations - presented a report on violence against women with disabilities to the General Assembly in August 2012. This report was the result of research across severalcountries over the past year.



According to the 2011World Report on Disabilityby the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, it is estimated that approximately 15 percent of the world's population lives with some form of disability - 12 percent of men and 19.2 percent of women. These figures tell us that a significant percentage of the global population is made up of women with disabilities. Despite these high figures, however, nation states do not act with due diligence in order to promote and protect the rights of women with disabilities, especially in terms of the violence they face.

Many policies operate on the assumption that a disabling condition is a defect, rather than using the social model of disability rights which sees disability as a socially ascribed so-called deficit. The impact of such a perspective is clear: persons with disabilities are to be avoided and/or excluded, as opposed to accommodated and included in the community (as is recommended by the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities). This perspective compounds with other stereotypes and biases surrounding gender and disability, and subsequently results in disabled women cultivating a psychological sense of invisibility, self-estrangement, and/or powerlessness. This is further intensified if they are economically deprived, older, or belong to a sexual minority or any other disfavoured marginalised group.


Vulnerable groups of disabled women include:

Women living in rural areas, where issues of economic dependence, literacy, income, inaccessible environments, and a lack of services, information, awareness and education leads to further exploitation of women with disabilities. This can often lead to trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced labour.

Indigenous women living with disabilities face multiple levels of discrimination based on their disability, gender, and indigenous status. Cultural and linguistic barriers lead to further isolation and discrimination, and the environments they live in often have high levels of alcohol or substance abuse, which leads to greater violence being perpetrated against them. 

Women with disabilities who are a part of ethnic or racial minority groups may be subject to discrimination in terms of access to education, employment and healthcare. Furthermore, justice systems are often unresponsive to their needs, and they are seen as contributors to their own abuse.

Women living in conflict or post-conflict areas may be at additional risk to violence as members of a targeted group. They may also face additional burdens in refugee camps which are rarely designed to meet access needs.

Undocumented women with disabilities may also face violence due to aggressors' control over immigration, language barriers, and barriers to social and public services.

Lesbian women and other sexual minorities that identify as female face social barriers, violence and exclusion due to a compounding of disability with a marginalised sexuality.

Older women experience disability more frequently as they age, and they are particularly vulnerable to violence, as well as psychological, verbal and financial abuse.

Social prejudices also play a major role. In some societies, women with disabilities are seen as less eligible marriage partners. Therefore, such women often find themselves in unstable relationships which may turn abusive, and leaves them with few legal, social, and economic options.


Manifestations of Violence:

Violence against women with disabilities can be of a physical, psychological, sexual or financial nature and include neglect, social isolation, entrapment, degradation, detention, denial of healthcare, forced sterilization and psychiatric treatment. This violence can be meted out to them at home, at work, at school, on the street. or in institutions

Women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience domestic violence as nondisabled women. They are also likely to experience abuse over a longer period of time and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of this violence. In domestic violence situations, disabled women may fear reporting or leaving an abuser because of emotional, financial or physical dependence; they may also fear losing custody of their children.

Apart from the physical barriers of actually fleeing the abuser and reaching the police, women with disabilities face a number of obstacles within the justice system. There is often a refusal to view such women as credible witnesses (particularly if they have difficulty in communicating or are intellectually disabled).  The stereotypes that exclude or discount their testimonies make them additionally hesitant to lodge a complaint, and therefore more vulnerable. Furthermore, lawyers are seldom trained to deal with clients with disabilities, and therefore the client-lawyer relationship may not reach its full potential. Prison facilities are often also inaccessible for women with disabilities who are detained. Many prisoners who need psychiatric treatment are instead behind bars.

The forced sterilisation of women with disabilitiesis a global problem, and women who choose to have children are often criticised for their choices. On one hand, motherhood is expected of all women and, on the other, women with disabilities are often discouraged, if not forced, to reject motherhood roles - despite their personal desires. Research shows that no other group has ever been as severely restricted or negatively treated in respect to their reproductive rights as women with disabilities.

Women and girls with disabilities are at risk of being trafficked and forced into sex work. The four major risk factors for susceptibility to trafficking are poverty, ignorance, minority status and being female. Women and girls with disabilities may fit into one or more of these high-risk categories, thus increasing their vulnerability to this form of exploitation.



Violence against women with disabilities originates from social norms about the type of disability as well as gender, and disabled women face various barriers to escaping, preventing or obtaining redress for this violence. Women with physical disabilities may be dependent on their abusers for daily needs - carers, families, partners, etc. Furthermore, the fact that they are often seen as asexual paradoxically leads to greater levels of sexual violence, because they are less likely to be believed if they report such violations. Some cultures and religions see disability as signifying evil, which is used to further justify violence. Women with disabilities may also lack education, financial independence and information to recognise and report violence, particularly sexual violence.


Conclusions and Recommendations:

There are many normative frameworks in existence, like the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities, other instruments and conventions drawn up by Human Rights Council, and region specific policies in Africa, America, and Europe that can be positively used to help address violence against disabled women.

Most states lack legislations related to persons with disabilities, and specifically women with disabilities. States that have a disability law do not specifically address the rights of women with disabilities in general, or violence in particular. States may also have a specific law on violence against women that generally provides remedies for all women, within a non-discriminatory framework. Unfortunately, such laws are not effectively implemented in respect to women with disabilities. On the other hand, non-governmental organisations are doing dedicated work in researching the issue and providing support and training to women with disabilities

The rapporteur recommends that states should adopt an empowerment perspective rather than a vulnerability perspective. She also suggests reforms in the justice system including prisons, healthcare facilities, and media portrayals. She encourages enabling women with disabilities to work with women's rights groups and disability organisations for their empowerment and progress. Further, she states that United Nations agencies and programmes should be increasingly engaged in the issue of violence against women with disabilities, including in the production of specific reports on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

Read the full report herePDF File that opens in a new window External Website



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