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Disabled Women Must Be Included in Discussions Against Male Violence

Raise Objections When It Matters Most

To constantly live under pressure of being mishandled anytime in the name of help, feels extremely disgusting. Being vulnerable due to handicap often puts people into not only uncomfortable but many times disrespectful experiences. The concept of “humanity” feels non-existential to people who have experienced the violence and abuse. The disregard of such violence is derogatory and it largely goes unnoticed and unacknowledged. It is not just the responsibility of the Government but at an individual level every member of the society should be held responsible for this situation. It’s shameful not only for the ones committing it but also on the part of the one’s not doing anything to stop the abuse and not raising their voice against such violence. Indifference in such situations is equally heinous as the crime.

The Disheartening Factor

Isn’t it strange that in a country like India where religion and spirituality are highly valued, people find it a taboo to acknowledge the existence of human exploitation and to leverage accountable cum responsible measures to limit and extinguish such horror experiences?  When it comes to issues of tax, politics, price of petrol, and things of similar nature, we have huge discussions on television, radio and other platforms and we make sure the subject is dealt with in the most appropriate ways. Nonetheless, when it comes to issues of disability, we don’t see the subject being discussed sufficiently and what is more disheartening is that if someone picks up this subject to raise questions and come to a fruitful solution, the process does not involve the opinions of the disabled people or people who are physically challenged.

Make it easy to confront these issues

It is important to talk to people who have first-hand experience of such dreadful events that destroys an individual not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. To include them in the quorum of the meetings designed to handle these issues is much needed and relevant step towards initiating ways to resolve these issues.

The process should be made such that individuals are comfortable sharing their experiences, they should not be made to feel embarrassed for raising their voice for justice and for their right to freedom, to live at peace without constantly feeling fearful and less than. It’s high time we make it easier for the physically challenged people to live an empowered life. About 2.2% of India’s population lives with some kind of physical or mental disability, as per the National Statistics Office report on disability released last year. Like other disadvantaged groups, the disabled in India are entitled to some benefits, ranging from reservation in educational institutes to concessions on railway tickets, etc. But what about the safety and liberty of such individuals?

The Covid Add on

The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented rise in the cases of domestic violence. Crisis perpetuates the existing inequalities in the society and has even highlighted the fact that women with disabilities are more vulnerable as they stand at an intersection of gender and disability. However, its highly disappointing to find that the justice system continues to remain inaccessible to them. The overpowering authority surrounding the disabled because of their dependency on others to meet their basic needs often traps them into un-holistic atmosphere. Women with disabilities find it difficult to establish their individual identities in a society that claims to be humanitarian but in reality, is dehumanized towards physically challenged people.

Recently the Supreme Court of India took an initiative in this regard. "For many disabled women and girls in India, the threat of violence is an all-too-familiar fixture of their lives, contracting their constitutionally guaranteed freedom to move freely and curtailing their ability to lead full and active lives. This threat of violence can translate into a nagging feeling of powerlessness and lack of control, making the realization of the promises held by Parts III and IV of our Constitution a remote possibility for women with disabilities," said a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah on Apr 29, 2021.

Upholding the life sentence awarded to one Patan Jamal Vali of Andhra Pradesh for sexually assaulting a blind girl who was the sister of his friend, the bench said “women with disabilities are more susceptible to sexual violence as the accused perceives that the testimony of the rape survivor would not be fool proof because of her physical impairments.”

Writing the judgment, Justice Chandrachud said, "we do not mean to subscribe to the stereotype that persons with disabilities are weak and helpless, incapable of charting the course of their lives or to deprive them of the agency and bodily autonomy that we all possess and are entitled to exercise. Such a negative presumption of disability translating into incapacity would be inconsistent with the forward-thinking conceptualization of disabled lives embodied in our law and, increasingly, albeit slowly, in our social consciousness.”

"Instead, our aim is to highlight the increased vulnerability and reliance on others that is occasioned by having a disability which makes women with disabilities more susceptible to being at the receiving end of sexual violence. As the facts of this case make painfully clear, women with disabilities, who inhabit a world designed for the able-bodied, are often perceived as 'soft targets' and 'easy victims' for the commission of sexual violence. It is for this reason that our legal response to such violence, in the instant case as well as at a systemic level, must exhibit attentiveness to this salient fact," Justice Chandrachud said.

The bench said “testimony of a prosecutrix with a disability, or of a disabled witness for that matter, cannot be considered weak or inferior, only because such an individual interacts with the world in a different manner, vis-a-vis their able- bodied counterparts. ".. the court appreciating such testimony needs to be attentive to the fact that the witness’ disability can have the consequence of the testimony being rendered in a different form, relative to that of an able-bodied witness," the bench said.

The bench laid down some guidelines to make the criminal justice system more disabled-friendly:

·       The National Judicial Academy and state judicial academies are requested to sensitize trial and appellate judges to deal with cases involving survivors of sexual abuse.

·       The Bar Council of India can consider introducing courses in the LL.B program that cover these topics and the intersectional nature of violence more generally.

·       The National Crimes Record Bureau should seriously consider the possibility of maintaining disaggregated data on gender-based violence. Disability must be one of the variables on the basis of which such data must be maintained so that the scale of the problem can be mapped out and tailored remedial action can be taken.

·       Police officers should be provided sensitization, on a regular basis, to deal with cases of sexual violence against women with disabilities, in an appropriate way.

The stigma and shame attached with disability

The stigma and shame attached with disability causes women with disabilities to be treated insignificantly. Gender stereotypes and prejudices structuring the system curtail the right of women with disabilities to access justice in cases of gender-based violence and abuses. It’s time we stop treating them as if they are invisible and make them feel belonged and part of the society. If we claim to be truly educated, then no discrimination should exist. It’s time we stop mitigating the effects of biases and take initiative to spread equality and inclusivity for all members of the society.

The failures simply highlights that there is a sheer lack of responsibility, understanding and knowledge about the concerns of women with disabilities at an institutional level. However, it’s important here to remember that to eradicate any sort of violence, abuse or other derogatory actions at root level, it’s vital for everyone to play their role in eliminating it. The police, government, courts will play their roles but as individuals we should be attentive towards the needs of others and not just pretend that we did not notice any wrong doing and pass by. Unity has strength, when we collectively stand for any cause, we can bring significant transformation. This can be crucial, one man/woman with courage can ignite courage and resilience among people who don’t feel powerful enough to raise objections. Let’s not fail humanity, let each one of us pledge to help the unprivileged and physically challenged people to live an empowered life, a life of dignity and grace and not let them succumb to ill treatments because of their inabilities or handicaps.