Protecting Women and Girls with Disability
By Broderick and Innes
Updated Wed 27 Nov 2013, 8:58am AEDT
Australian women and girls with disabilities are twice as likely as women and girls without disabilities to experience violence throughout their lives, yet this has remained largely outside public debate, write Elizabeth Broderick and Graeme Innes.
"Are you talking about rape? I've been raped many times. You just have to get used to it."
Imagine that your daughter, sister, mother, wife, girlfriend or female friend had the grave misfortune to have this happen to her - and that this statement, thick with defeat and resignation, was her response to such a gross perpetration of violence against her.
Now imagine she is in a care facility because she is a woman with a disability - a woman with an intellectual disability or a mental illness, a woman with a disability that severely limits her motor and speech abilities, or a woman with a disability that causes her to remain in bed - you can come up with other examples of women you may know.
The tragic thing is that this statement is real. It was spoken by a woman with a disability during a consultation conducted as part of research undertaken by the University of Western Sydney.
We are trying to complete a picture for you here - and it is a horrifying one.
It is also one that is far too common in our community and one that continues to be discretely swept under the carpet - as it has been for far, far too long.
Recent research from the University of New South Wales has found that Australian women and girls with disabilities are twice as likely as women and girls without disabilities to experience violence throughout their lives.
To put this further in perspective, women and girls with disabilities represent one in five of Australia's female population and not only experience violence at significantly higher rates, but more frequently, for longer, in more ways and by more perpetrators.
Two years ago, Melbourne's Herald Sun reported that records showed between January 2009 and July 2011 more than two Department of Health Services clients were attacked every day on average, with almost 1800 assaults, sex attacks or rape allegations reported in the 30 months to July 2011. In more than 500 of these cases, approximately 28 per cent, state-appointed staff and carers were accused.
In an observation that is true across our entire country, the Victorian Public Advocate noted, "For too long, alleged violence has been wrongly described as 'incidents' requiring internal management rather than being named and dealt with as alleged crimes."
It is a shameful reality that Australian women and girls with disabilities experience high levels of domestic and family violence and sexual assault, and have high unmet needs in terms of access to domestic violence, sexual assault and related community services.
Take the story of Rosa, recounted by Intellectual Disability Right's Services in their 2008 Enabling Justice Report. Rosa is a 50 year-old woman with cerebral palsy and intellectual disability who has little speech and communicates using some words and gestures, When she told a support worker that another support worker raped her, police and Rosa's parents were called. Using words and gestures, she told the police she wanted to provide evidence and proceed with charges against the support worker. However, when the police sought consent, Rosa's parents declined a police interview or a medical examination to obtain evidence of the rape. She did eventually manage to receive support from an advocate, but by that time it was too late to obtain medical evidence and the investigation was dropped.
Rosa's story goes to the additional complication survivors of violence can face in trying to access justice.
Just for a moment, imagine yourself in that situation. What would you do?
In other cases, we heard of women in institutionalised care being effectively prostituted - shut in rooms and forced to service fellow men in care, often being paid, as it was described, with "a smoke for a poke".
The over-arching point here is that, instead of being viewed as a critical priority for national action, violence against women and girls with disabilities has remained largely outside public debate, social policy discussions and service system reform processes.
That must change.
At the Australian Human Rights Commission, we are already involved with important initiatives like the Stop the Violence Project which aims to provide better policies and practices to improve the way government and service providers respond to and prevent violence against women and girls with disability.
Today's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is the perfect opportunity for us all to lend our voices to these women and shine a floodlight on their often overlooked experiences - to start taking whatever steps we can to ensure that women and girls with disability can enjoy what, after all, is their fundamental human right of freedom from violence, exploitation and abuse.
Elizabeth Broderick is Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Graeme Innes is Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner.