What if... women with disabilities were free from domestic violence?
17 June 2021
Imagine how you might feel. How isolated. How low.
You are a woman. Or a girl. You are at home. You have a disability. Maybe you are deaf, or blind, or your legs won’t carry you. Maybe your brain works differently than other people’s.
You are dependent on your husband, or your parents, or your uncle, or other people. They may show some kindness, but often it is coupled with scorn. They see you as a burden. They take their frustration and anger out on you. They do not send you to school, for they say it is not worth it. They use cruel names to speak of you. They do not feed you enough. They hit you. They may have their way with you.
You cannot leave. Where would you go? What organizations are there to help you? How would you reach them? Who would believe you? If you protest, you worry that you would be sent to an institution, and that might only be worse.
You are alone. And yet there are many millions like you. Not all women and girls with disabilities suffer the same conditions as you, but many do.
There is someone thinking of you with determination, love and a legal mind. Her name is Samaneh Shabani.
“A peaceful atmosphere”—how Shabani came to care about domestic violence
“I grew up in a peaceful atmosphere,” says Shabani, who has been blind since she was born in 1989. “My parents did not see my disability as a reason to keep me on the margins.” She attended a school for children with disabilities, then transitioned to a mainstream school.
Growing up, there were not yet screen-readers or laptops, so her family would help her access the educational materials she needed. To make transcriptions, for example, “Sometimes my mom would read aloud word by word, and I would type on my Perkins machine”—a braille typewriter.
She persevered, and the technology grew ever more sophisticated, as did her mind. Now age 31, Shabani is a graduate of some of Iran’s top universities and wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on domestic violence against women with disabilities and their access to justice under international human rights law. She had a stint working as an intern at the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in Tehran. Now she is at the Geneva Academy pursuing a master’s degree in transitional justice—how people can reach justice in societies dealing with the legacies of conflict or widespread human rights violations.
Shabani has never experienced the violence she concerns herself with—be it physical, sexual, emotional or verbal. But she aims to bring the world’s legal structures to bear in support of women with disabilities who have.
Men and boys with disabilities may also experience violence at home, says Shabani. But women bear the added burden of gender discrimination. They are more likely to subjected to harm, stigmatization, deprived of opportunities, and even blamed for their own disabilities.
Domestic violence against any girl or woman is bad, says Shabani. What makes it worse for those with disabilities is how vulnerable they are. “Their families may say, ‘All you do is eat, you are not useful,’” says Shabani. They may have few opportunities to make friends outside the house, much less get married, and may be treated as little more than servants—cooking, cleaning, or taking care of younger children.
“Especially in countries where there is no social support system, they’re totally dependent on their families,” says Shabani. “If government is ignorant and civil society is weak, then domestic violence happens in the shadows.”
“If you open the door”—opportunities and obstacles for people with disabilities
In Shabani’s home country of Iran, as in many other countries, conditions for people with disabilities are best in the major cities, which often have wheelchair ramps, as well as schools for the deaf or visually impaired, and disability organizations. In Tehran, for example, Shabani worked for a disability organization that was staffed mostly by people with disabilities.
“If you open the door,” she says, “you can see the abilities of people with disabilities.”
In many places, however, that door remains closed. Whatever supports may exist, there are systematic barriers, too. In Iran, for example, these include prohibitions on people with visual impairments from becoming teachers, who are supposed to have “healthy bodies,” says Shabani. And in smaller towns and villages, services are all but absent.
What’s more, some intellectual and other forms of disabilities are invisible, and some conditions might not be recognized as disabilities, even if they bring impairments with them. Such is the case with diabetes.
People whose disabilities are invisible or unrecognized are often stranded, unable to access any supports, if they even exist. The more isolated someone is, the more vulnerable they are to violence at home.
“All persons with disabilities”—how the law lays a foundation
Even if they are not recognized at home, people with disabilities are recognized in international human rights law.
“[T]o promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”
The CRPD does not say, “Whenever possible, some people with one of a select number of disabilities should have access to occasional support, and under such-and-such conditions.” Instead, the CRPD is unequivocal and broad-based. The sentence cited above talks about “all human rights” for “all persons with disabilities.”
That one sentence is just a fraction of a longer agreement, which details the categories of disabilities, the adaptations necessary for people to enjoy their rights, areas where their rights have been violated, and where they must be protected.
All of this might sound abstract or even useless to someone not familiar with human rights law. What good is a bunch of words in a nonbinding treaty? How could they possibly help women and girls with disabilities facing domestic violence?
“The CRPD is a great achievement for the disability community and for all people,” says Shabani. For her, it is the ground on which other human rights protections are built. The more explicit and comprehensive it is, the more secure the ground is. For example, Article 16 of the Convention is on “freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.” Article 6 addresses women and girls with disabilities in particular, and General Comment No. 3 on that article “interprets” it, says Shabani.
“With the CRPD, we have something that is beyond customs, beyond informal norms,” she says. “Now we have written norms agreed to by state parties.”
“This happens gradually”—making change, bit by bit
These conventions recognize the human rights of people with disabilities. It is the ongoing task of governments and of advocates such as Shabani to help realize—or make real—those rights. No wonder the CRPD is also described as an “instrument,” or tool. Governments use it to make policy, and advocates use it to pressure governments. They both use it to reach women and girls, there where they are, in their homes, in their languages, in their families, in their isolation, in their dignity, in their pain, and in their struggles with domestic violence.
“That happens gradually, not overnight,” says Shabani. “Women and girls need more independence. And you need to educate society for it.” Such changes might take the form of a basic income, more job opportunities, crisis hotlines that are accessible to all women and girls with disabilities, and positive images in books and movies and the culture at large.
Ending domestic violence against women and girls with disabilities, then, requires broader changes in society and the law.
In one view, says Shabani, “disability is in the society, it is not in the individual.” That is, society keeps people from realizing their potential. When there are no schoolbooks in braille or no wheelchair ramps in businesses, that is a failing of society. Ultimately, she says, society “needs to focus on any individual, to know his or her needs one by one.”
For people without disabilities, that might seem to require an awful lot of work. But recognizing individuals in all their complexity is not a burden. It is a boon. Society is enriched when it realizes the rights of all people. For Shabani, this is one of the great messages of Persian culture, which she says respects “every person, every living creature.”
Among those individuals are women and girls with disabilities, at home, facing hateful words or a heavy fist.
Freed from the tyranny of domestic violence, says Shabani, these women and girls would flourish in creativity, love, and wisdom. They are entitled to as much, entitled to fundamental rights, simply by virtue of being human.
Shabani is thinking of them and wants to remind them: “You are valuable. You have dignity like everyone else.”
Written by Paul VanDeCarr,Development Coordination Office. UN entities worldwide work to end violence against women and girls with disabilities. Within and across countries, virtually all UN agencies are part of the Spotlight Initiative, a global partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. Also addressing gender-based violence and the needs of women and girls with disabilities are such agencies as UN Women, UNICEF, and UNFPA (see also here). The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was negotiated and was adopted at the United Nations.