‘I think a disability accentuates our feelings of vulnerability and helplessness… We can’t move away from our fear because it lives in our head. … Until we, as women, can change our attitudes to ourselves, refuse to bear total guilt, and reject our feelings of shame, and give and receive support from other women; and until men stop using women’s bodies against which to vent their anger, rape will continue to be more disabling than the restrictions placed upon us by institutions.’
Writings by Women with Disabilities on Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA)
Will my disability make me an easy victim of sexual assault?
Many women experience sexual assault and rape. They face these at the hands of partners, families, people they interact with, people they barely know. Evidence shows that there is no place or time or a particular situation where sexual assault is more or less likely. But certain factors such as low social status, low ability to negotiate, a disregard for women’s safety in the city or fear of reporting crimes against women can make women more vulnerable.
Disability is a factor that can contribute to a woman’s vulnerability to assault. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability states that: ‘In general, little information is available on the risks for people living with disabilities. The studies that have been conducted make it clear that there is a much higher than average risk of sexual abuse for people living with disabilities. The numbers from different studies vary, but the risk for women with disabilities (internationally) is anywhere from two to ten times greater than that found in the general population.’
If you are visually impaired or have limited mobility, you may be more dependent on caregivers or external help in general. This dependence could make access to you easy. For example, a caregiver who is bathing you and dressing you has access to your intimate space. If you are visually challenged, a sighted guide has scope to touch you. Being disabled does not mean you have to allow ‘unconditional’ access. No one should touch you without your permission, including your caregiver.
Your situation may make you notionally more vulnerable – but not if you are prepared to react. Knowing how to negotiate and set your boundaries, learning simple self-defence measures, being vocal or communicative about any discomforts, and being prepared and alert to react will enable you to handle any situation that comes your way – whether you have a disability or not.
Does mental disability make a person an easy target for abuse? Why? What can be done about it?
Like anyone else, a person with a mental disability could face abuse at the hands of a stranger or a familiar – a person she knows. People with intellectual disabilities have certain added vulnerabilities. They are seen as easy targets , since it is assumed they will not recognise or realise they are being abused, and that their claim of abuse will not easily be hear or believed. A 2004 survey in Odisha, India found that 25% of women with intellectual disabilities had been raped. The perceived ‘ease’ of getting away with sexual assault may be a factor that places girls and women with mental disabilities at risk.
In addition, women in this situation may not have the protective web of friendships, family relationships and collegial support that enables other women to speak out. And they may depend on care from individuals or institutions, some of whom take advantage of this situation.
It is important for people with mental disability to have age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education which includes not only biological facts, but also teaches them to manage and enjoy relationships, make responsible choices and distinguish right from wrong. This helps people with an intellectual disability recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of them,protect themselves from exploitation and have the ability to report incidents of suspected sexual abuse.
Says Ratnaboli Ray, a mental health worker from Anjali Foundation, ‘Generally parents or caregivers have just two options to protect the mentally disabled. One is that they could act as a 24/7 surveillance camera and monitor their daughter/ward. The second option is to let her live independently as it is her right, while keeping the channels of communication open. They should explain to her the rules of safety, and tell her that no one has the right to violate her body. Some parents choose the first option, some choose the second. They must decide what works best for them.’
We never leave my daughter alone with strangers because she has a disability. Isn’t she safe from sexual abuse?
The National Crime Record Bureau’s 2007 report shows that in 92.5% (19,188) of sexual assault cases, offenders were known to the victims. Of these ‘known offenders’ 2.1% were parents/close family members, 36% were neighbours and 7.5% were relatives. Being a stranger may have nothing to do with it. As per these statistics, your daughter is more likely to face sexual abuse from a familiar.
Isolating her from strangers or accompanying her everywhere might inadvertently reduce her confidence. She may develop a false sense of security with people she knows, which may make her more vulnerable to abuse. She may lose out on being in social situations where she could make friends and learn about relationships in a different way. It’s a tricky balance: on the hand, trust (not paranoia) needs to be built with familiars, specially those who are responsible for her care. On the other hand, if these individuals are presented as infallible or beyond reproach, she may find it difficult to speak about any abuse she may encounter at their hands. She may think you won’t believe her.
There is a fine line between being protective and over-protective. Smothering and over-protection will not help her. What will help is empowering her with knowledge about sex, relationships, and abuse, enabling her to be alert to how both strangers and intimates interact with her, and empowering her to seek help if she is ever faces abuse.
My daughter is going through puberty and she is asking me questions about her body.I was raped by a man. Since then I am too scared to interact with any man. What do I do?
Counsellor Chitra Joshi from Dilasa has specific advice on this: ‘First of all, you need to remember you were abused by one man,’ she says. ‘It is not that every man will do the same to you. Your anger, your fear should be towards that particular man and not the entire male sex. Keep this in mind and slowly try and interact with any man you are comfortable with. It could be your brother, your friend, your teacher. If even this scares you, meet them with someone you trust. The other option is to interact with them in a public place – like a coffee shop, classroom, in a family gathering and all. Slowly you can build your confidence.
Once you are confident of trusting the males you know, then start interacting openly with other men as well. If you have been abused by a man you trust, it can be even more difficult to recover. But again, this doesn’t mean that all the men you trust are the same. You must not blame yourself for getting abused. You may think “Why did I trust him? My judgement is not sound. How can I trust my judgement again? How did I consider this man like a brother or a friend? Did I do anything to invite this kind of act from this man? So I should not trust any man, because I don’t know where to place trust.” This kind of self-blame will only push you into a dark valley, coming out of which will be extremely difficult. This will harm your self-esteem and confidence. Once that happens, people will take more advantage of you. So the re-victimisation will happen very easily if you lose self-confidence.’
I was sexually assaulted. Will I ever be able to put this behind me and move on?
Sexual assault can have physical, sexual, psychological and emotional consequences.Physical consequences can include sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), pregnancy, damage to vaginal or anal tissues. These are best addressed through medical care. The physical part that is harder to tackle – and which has a psychological aspect – is coming to terms with your body after an assault. You may have a negative perception of your body, or even start hating it. Try to doexercises that to help you see your body in a more positive light – and to reconfigure your relationship with your body.
Even when they have dealt with the physical effects, women find it hard to deal with the emotional after-effects of sexual assault. These can include: lack of trust specially in a sexual relationship; a tendency towards taking complete control in some spheres; difficulty falling asleep or concentrating; self-hatred or worthlessness; a sense of being ‘too damaged’ to have sex again; occurrence of vivid flashbacks, triggered by a smell, sound, or sight, by the time of day, or for no obvious reason. There are cases where women experience orgasms while being sexually assaulted. This complicates the situation even more, adding further shame, anger, guilt, pain, and self-loathing to the mix.
Emotional healing in this situation may take some time – and some work. First and foremost, remember that the abuse was not in any way ‘your fault’. You did not ask for it. Even if you feel your body has betrayed you by having an orgasm or some such, the fact remains: you did not ask for it. While coming to terms with this, try to deal with the other emotions you are experiencing. Talking about it with someone you are close to – and who is unlikely to judge you – can help as much, if not more than replaying the same things over and over again in the safety of your own head. Some people find they need to talk about the abuse, others don’t. See if you wish to confide in a friend or meet a counsellor.
Taking a break from sex at this time is an option. Thoughts about sex or the assault do not have to dominate your life. If feeling sexual is too painful, you can concentrate on other things in your life and then revisit sex to see if the break has helped you get through some of the pain. Alternately, you could stick to exploring your own body if you are scared of others touching you; try having a one-on-one sexual experience before having sex with someone else. This way you can have total control of what is going on and can go at your own pace.
Be aware that you may experience flashbacks during this period, even during masturbation. Try not to panic if you have a flashback. Flashbacks can provide valuable information about your experience of abuse and can give you a chance to release some feelings that you’ve held on to. If you are feeling panicked, open your eyes and try to ground yourself. Focus on something in your room that will allow you to connect with the present. Remind yourself that you aren’t being abused now, it is you touching yourself, and you are in control. You have a right to touch yourself in a loving way, you deserve pleasure, and you deserve to be touched the way you want to be touched. You deserve to heal.
When with a sexual partner, you may still freeze. Please don’t forget that this is consensual sex, while the assault was someone else’s desire thrust upon you. If you think sharing your fears with your partner will help you, then do that. You could take time to get comfortable with your partner’s body. Take tiny steps from there. By opening yourself to desire, exploring your sexual response, and learning that you can be in control , you will move towards a healthier space where it might even feel safe to allow yourself to be out of control.
Here is a testimony of a disabled woman from ‘The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability,’ (ed. Kaufman, Silverberg and Odette, 2003): ‘Acknowledging how my body is changing to tolerate less stress or use was most important in learning that my goals can change from minute to minute during sex. This didn’t de-emphasize orgasm, but it did give me more fluidity during sex. That acknowledgment made it more comfortable to me to stop sex at any time for any reason. After I got to that point-primarily through struggling with my pain and limited mobility-I was better equipped to deal with the trauma of sexual and emotional abuse that kept me from having healthy sex. If I could stop sex because my joints were uncomfortable, why not stop sex because my soul is uncomfortable? This was tremendously important to my sexual healing. And, as a result, only a few months ago I really started being able to have an orgasm with a partner.’
During this period of physical, emotional and sexual healing, you may need to mentally prepare yourself to battle the stigma that sexually abused women in South Asian cultures often experience. This is often linked to misplaced notions of shame and honour. In films they might show women hanging themselves or jumping into a well, but these extreme steps are not what women who face assault really take. Even in your deepest moment of despair following sexual assault, taking your own life is just not an option. Ask yourself: what is it that is at stake? If people are robbed, physically beaten or subject to any other crime, they do not jump off a bridge. Why should women who have been sexually assaulted? They have been the victims of a crime like any other.
What can I do when I am attacked?
To resist is perhaps the most crucial thing to do when threatened or under attack. See this excerpt from ‘A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities’ by Jane Maxwell, Julia Watts Belser, and Darlena David for some great ideas on how to react: ‘If a woman resists someone who tries to hurt her, she is often able to avoid rape. Some people think that trying to stop rape will make an attacker more angry. But an attacker is already dangerous. Resisting rape may allow you to get away, because it can show an attacker that trying to rape you will be too much trouble.
It is impossible to know how you will react if someone tries to rape you. Some women are filled with anger and feel strength they did not know they had. Others feel like they cannot move. But remember, if you are raped, it is not because you failed to defend yourself. Rape is never your fault.
If someone attacks you or tries to rape you, do whatever you can to get away:
- Do something he finds disgusting, such as drool or spit.
- Hurt the soft parts of his body such as his eyes, nose, or testicles (balls) by scratching, hitting, or kicking him.
- Roll your wheelchair into the person as hard and fast as you can.
- Make noise, scream, or yell “NO!” Shout as loud as you can: “HELP!”
- Throw chili powder, pepper, or dirt into his eyes. It will blind him for a while and be very painful. You may be able to get away.
- If you lose your balance easily, it is best to sit down before you start defending yourself or fighting back
- When your attacker bends down, hit him in the nose or eyes. You can also use your head to hit his nose.
- Sitting or kneeling down is a safer defence position for women who use crutches, whose legs are weak, or who are unsteady on their feet. Once you are sitting down, poke him with your crutch or cane.
- If you use a stick or cane, you may be disoriented if it is knocked away. If you think you are about to be attacked, turn your stick so the short, thick end points toward the man. Poke him with the stick as hard as you can. Do not swing your stick like a baseball or cricket bat. That makes it easier to grab or to knock away.
If you are blind. Blind women can lose their bearings when someone attacks them. But you can use the attacker’s body to help you. Try to find the place where the shoulder meets the neck. It is one of the easiest places to find quickly and it gives you good information about the position of the rest of his body. Then you can hit him in his soft spots.
Ask a friend to help you practice finding the shoulder quickly, and then finding the tender parts of the body. Your friend can also help you practice your skills. Practicing self-defence can help you feel safer and more confident, even if you are never assaulted. Practice having a strong, assertive attitude… Remember, even if you cannot defend yourself, it is not your fault if you are attacked or raped.’