Women With Disabilities As Invisible Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence
Updated: Jan 24
Abstract: Data and research strongly indicate that disabled women in India are subjected to more abuse from partners because they are dependent on them on a day to day basis financially, emotionally and physically. This is not suggestive of their personal incapacity, but rather, of the construction of a society around them that continuously erases, and ironically, reinforces those same disabilities. Consequently, this manner of abuse is more concealed and difficult to identify than typical partner abuse. Because of this, and inadequate medicolegal mechanisms, the law and the medical field doesn't effectively identity and acknowledge abuse from partners towards their disabled partners. This cements and propagates a very specific type of oppression that is in an unacknowledged and rarely addressed space.
Keywords: disabilities, intimate partner violence, gendered violence, data collection, covid-19
Intimate Partner Violence (‘IPV’) is overwhelmingly linked with the expression of power dynamics within relationships. In most instances, the perpetrators of such violence - typically males within heterosexual relationships - express a desire to enforce discipline and control over their intimate partners, resorting to sexual and physical violence in conjunction with emotionally abusive tactics. Nearly 60% of Indian male respondents in a study by the International Centre for Research on Women admitted to having acted violently against their wife or partner. It is unsurprising, then, that women with disabilities in India form an extremely vulnerable class to such violence, owing to the various intersections of identity that interact with external redressal mechanisms available to them. The construction of disabilities by the State and social movements contradict each other, culminating in a widespread erasure of a political class of women with disabilities. Data and research strongly indicate that disabled women in India are subjected to more abuse from partners because they are dependent on them on a day-to-day basis financially, emotionally, and physically. This is not suggestive of their personal incapacity, but rather, of the construction of a society around them that continuously erases, and ironically, reinforces those same disabilities. Consequently, this manner of abuse is more concealed and difficult to identify than typical partner abuse, which cements and propagates a very specific type of oppression that is in an unacknowledged and rarely addressed space.
Legislative Medicalisation of Disabilities
This space is especially confusing for the women located in it, as the State and social conditions often present contradictory conditions for them. The Indian government continues to deny rights-based protections to persons with disabilities, despite the ratification of the United Nations Conventions on Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2007 (‘UNCRPD’) In fact, there remain few Constitutional protections for persons with disabilities, that are largely envisaged in the broader State protections against discrimination as a whole. Few studies and legislation exist that acknowledge the concerns of individuals with disabilities. The controversial Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, for instance, showed the government’s denial of an inclusive definition of disability in itself. It demands a minimum 40% threshold to be met for a valid certification of disability that accords class-based protection to the holder. Consequently, a large percentage of those with disabilities are disenfranchised. In practice, too, these protections are hardly accessible independently, as they require an able-bodied guardian to tirelessly pursue the fulfilment of these protections. For instance, in a study on Indians with ASD - a disability that finds no mention in Indian legislation thus far - there appeared to be a continuous need for parents and other ‘crusaders’ to ensure that neuro-atypical students continued to sustain themselves in educational institutions, which is a privilege only some upper-class students can enjoy.
This demand to control and impose the narrative of disability is, in itself, rooted in an occidental model that hyper-medicalizes disabilities by viewing them from an exclusively biological lens, while remaining ignorant of the social factors that contribute to how disabilities are reinforced. This patronising attitude, disguised as altruism, results in an over-reliance on non-profit organizations to offer support to their perceived “charity cases”, and an explicit denial of class-based oppressions that may intersect with one another. For instance, legislations still take a phallocentric view, excluding the interplay of gendered relations with disabilities. One could easily argue that this is the natural consequence of the creation of a state that grants protections based on the productivity-value of citizens. Since individuals with disabilities provide it with no substantive benefits, support for them remains limited and controlled.
Disabilities in The Feminist Movement
Naturally, the social spaces for women with disabilities are no different, where there is an overreliance on hypothesising and questioning their realities, with no provision of tangible support. This concern has often been raised by differently-abled female activists, who struggle to rally the same degree of support for their causes as is enjoyed by able-bodied women of the Indian feminist movement. While there is no denying that a large portion of the movement is Brahminical and upper class, there is still a growing outcry against casteist and homophobic forms of violence against women, which is yet to be provided to women with disabilities for various reasons. One proposed theory for this is the relatively lower participation of women with disabilities in feminist movements. This is not a personal fault, but rather, a structural failure of the movement to create accessible spaces for the stakeholders of their own movements. However, this practical inadequacy is rooted in a larger inability to gauge disabilities, which stems from incongruence in the construction of the self. Feminist spaces view the body as a metaphor for a site of oppression where intersecting identities culminate into different classes. Consequently, caste, sexuality, and gender conformity create political classes, since they influence the general experience of womanhood, but remain largely imperceptible to the onlooker.These classes are identified with the intention of ‘breaking free’ of these externally imposed identities and reimagining their connotations. However, disabilities pose a threat to this resistance, where women are viewed as trapped within these intrinsic barriers to freedom, and not as the possessors of a different social identity that translates into an important political class of its own. As a consequence, theory on women with disabilities tends to use disempowering language that simultaneously erases and infantilises these women, reinforcing the very Statist hegemony they intend to oppose.
However, some of this feminist social reconstruction comes as a relief to people with disabilities, where progressive social movements have increasingly begun to reject the medicalisation of their bodies and questioning the erasure of the needs of the differently-abled. Growing discourse on accessible architecture and city-planning emphasise that individuals only experience disabilities when they “encounter behavioural barriers and environmental issues that prevent [them] from living in a certain manner with others.” Nevertheless, such informed understanding remains confined within bourgeois academic discourse, and inaccessible to its primary stakeholders. This exclusion from feminist jurisprudence is further worsened with the social perception of women with disabilities as weak, infantile, and lacking agency. Karmic traditions continuously view disabilities as a form of atonement for sins from a previous life. Even those who acknowledge the archaic nature of these beliefs still place women with disabilities as ‘doubly’ or ‘triply’ disabled, such as in Article 6 of the UNCRPD. The Hindi saying goes ek toh ladki, upar se apahij (she’s a woman, and disabled too), representing how disability overlaps with the pre-existing view of women as financial burdens on their families, and renders them socially undesirable.
The ‘Invisibility’ of IPV
This perception often translates into an increasingly vulnerable position for women with disabilities as they navigate their daily social lives holding an invisible political identity. Their infantilisation, and the consequent stigmatisation of their sexuality and ‘desirability’ culminates into what Fine and Asch call ‘rolelessness’. Women with disabilities are simultaneously subjected to the male gaze that expects them to perform their femininity, while their bodies constantly deny that expectation. This creates an increasing desire to break out of this denial of personal agency, while trying to conform to traditional femininity, which enforces yet another form of control. In 2002, the Centre for Research on Women with Disabilities reported that abuse was commonplace in the intimate relationships of women with disabilities, who often believe that they must be tolerant to make up for their ‘inadequacies’. Furthermore, most women with disabilities affected by IPV do not report their abuse or seek systemic redressal due to the fear of losing the few intimate relationships and emotional support systems available to them, as well as that of looking even weaker than their existing perception.
These concerns exist in conjunction with the practical problems of financial stability, physical support for performing daily tasks, and poorly created medicolegal mechanisms for reporting IPV. Article 27 of the UNCRPD specifies that States must recognise the right of persons with disabilities to access and participate in the labour market without hindrances andmust also take positive action to enable this participation. However, there still exists a vacuum in legislation in this regard in India, with even the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 finding itself largely inaccessible to women with disabilities. While Indian women already struggle to access their right to employment, for women with disabilities, this becomes a far-fetched dream. There exists no legal protection in labour laws and only 3% affirmative action protection for Indian citizens with disabilities. Such limited affirmative action and negligible availability of employment opportunities for the disabled are informed by the conventional perception that disabilities decrease the disabled’s employee efficiency and rather increase the employer’s responsibility towards them. With no recognition of the ‘invisible’ work of persons with disabilities –understood through the feminist theory of unpaid housework – and legally protected lower wages with instances of discrimination experienced by those who do work, women with disabilities rarely access the sort of financial stability they need to enjoy an independent life.
Moreover, Indian architecture is rarely accessible to the disabled, which not only restricts employment opportunities, but even makes the daily lives of women with disabilities fairly dependent on a co-habitant. Not only does this make leaving abusive relationships difficult, but a significant number of intimate partners of these women also come to be viewed as caregivers first and partners second. Ironically, while the women in these relationships are infantilised, their partners are not treated as persons in power, but rather, as sacrificial providers. This further makes reporting instances of violence difficult as their intimate relationships are perceived as asexual caregiver-patient relationships. There is also a greater reliance on these partner-caregivers for even accessing spaces that allow them to report their abuse, which are often unequipped to look for any signs of intimate partner abuse in the first place. Medical institutions rarely, if ever, screen for abuse and contribute extensively to the stigmatisation of disabilities in collaboration with legal institutions by the medicalisation of the body, causing women with disabilities to view these spaces with suspicion. The result is a medicolegal environment that makes it nearly impossible for women with disabilities to report their abuse, even if they did wish to do so.
COVID – 19 and the Way Forward
The imposition of a nationwide lockdown in light of COVID-19 trapped women with disabilities in homes with their partners, significantly exacerbating the aforementioned concerns. Where there already existed situations of abuse, there was an amplification, while rising tensions brought on by the economic and interpersonal difficulties created even more instances of intimate partner violence. A study conducted by Sightsavers and Rising Flame revealed that families continued to demand increased labour from the disabled women in their families, threatening to withdraw basic necessities from them if they did not comply. The reliance of women with disabilities on their partners was compounded further by the growing loss of jobs and financial instability. The loss of household help meant that even economically privileged women with disabilities were left to their own devices with abusive partners, concealed from any surveillance. External mobility became extremely difficult, and the ability to report abuse almost impossible.
As the situation worsens, it becomes important now more than ever to address the rapidly growing ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic violence against women with disabilities. The contrasting construction of disabilities by the State and the feminist movements in India have culminated in the erasure of women with disabilities as a political class, making their vulnerability to intimate partner violence nearly invisible. Therefore, emphasis needs to be laid on encouraging studies and data collection on women with disabilities and the way it intersects with other aspects of their identities. There needs to be a realisation that not all disabilities present themselves in the same way, and instead, affect individuals complexly in conjunction with their social realities. These studies must also be cognisant of not creating binaries between medicalisation and academic hypotheses, and finding practical solutions that bridge the academic gap should be the primary focus. These studies, of course, should consistently centre and draw from women with disabilities themselves, who have been largely side-lined and denied the ability to voice their concerns thus far. Additionally, laws must focus on erasing barriers and instances of discrimination and creating rights-affirmative legal protections instead. That means providing them with access to equal educational and employment opportunities and creating accessible infrastructure to secure the right to agency and autonomy. Furthermore, redressal mechanisms for IPV need to be strengthened. Medical institutions need to be mindful of the needs of differently-abled women in reporting and communicating their experiences, as well as provide them with private spaces for doing so without reliance on intimate partners. Support housing and shelters must be made accessible to all women. Moreover, relationships between partners must be viewed as at par with those between abled individuals, and deemphasize the disability of the women in those relationships. Finally, feminist spaces and progressive social movements must remain mindful of not patronising women with disabilities, and instead, work on disability-affirmative theorisation and resistance. It’s high time that abled individuals recognise that inclusivity and acceptance in these instances is key to ensuring that resistance spaces evolve and become accommodating of all vulnerable parties that they implicitly or explicitly seek to empower, which is impossible when such gross power imbalances continue to exist within the feminist dialogue.
Pranjal is a second year student of law at Jindal Global Law School. Her interests include financial policy, tech policy and ethics, and public health policy. She is currently associated with research and writing projects to solidify her areas of interest and explore the ways in which legal theory intersects with more commercial fields.