Sexual harassment: Is there justice for women with disabilities?

An article published by BBC early this week stated that an internal investigation in the African Union Commission revealed sexual harassment as a major problem for women working with the organisation, most of the victims being short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns looking for jobs.

The investigation was triggered in May this year after an anonymous letter alerted Moussa Faki, the AUC Chairperson, about the abuse, prompting him to establish a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that protects the victims and takes the strongest punitive measures against any perpetrator.

Addressing sexual harassment has been a core ambition all over the world in the fight for women empowerment, leading to international drives like the Me Too movement (or #MeToo movement). Me Too, initiated in 2006 by a social activist, Tarana Burke, with many local and international alternatives, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

However, there is a segment of women who are enduring this misery in silence — women living with disabilities.

Research suggests that women with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic violence, emotional abuse, and sexual assault than women without disabilities. Women with disabilities may also feel more isolated and feel they are unable to report the abuse, or they may be dependent on the abuser for their care. Like many women who are abused, women with disabilities are usually abused by someone they know, such as a partner or family member.

Sonia (not real name), an 18-year-old single mother, grew up in a family that was haunted by domestic violence. At the age of five, Sonia suffered mental illness, a condition that was triggered by events that sent her life into a twirl of misery.

“My father abandoned us and life was so hard that my mother became depressed. One day, she felt she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to take her own life. She locked herself in her bedroom and committed suicide. A few days went by but we didn’t know what had happened. We thought she just wanted to be left alone. My brother and I realised what had happened after we saw maggots coming out of her room,” she recalls.

The image of her mother lying dead on the bed left her unconscious. She then suffered a mental breakdown.

Sadly, her brother later also committed suicide and Sonia was left alone; she ended up on the streets.

After a rough time on the streets, Sonia was taken in by a random gentleman who had a family of his own. But as fate would have it, she didn’t get to enjoy her new family for long; the man’s brother took advantage of her mental state and started sexually abusing her at the age of seven.

“I could not report his actions because he threatened to send me back to the streets, or worse, kill me. I got pregnant when I was 13 and they sent me away. However, the Police helped me find a new home in Ndera that caters for sexually abused girls,” she narrates.

Sonia’s ordeal is just one of the many cases where young girls and women living with disabilities silently face sexual harassment. But what is being done to address this?

Donathile Kanimba, the president of Rwanda Union of the Blind, says when handling sexual harassment among women with disabilities, it should be noted that these women are faced with different kinds of struggles, and that is why unique approaches are required.

Some have visual or hearing impairments, others are physically disabled, whereas some have intellectual or psychosocial disabilities.

“With such, perpetrators easily take advantage of them, knowing that they can’t talk or see, hence, the victims won’t have means of implicating them in the crime. One can only know what happened to them if let’s say they get pregnant or suffer from a sexually transmitted infection,” she says.

But this is depraved, Kanimba says, and it is a violation of human rights. “These women end up raising fatherless children, something that has an impact not only on them but society at large.”

Kanimba adds that the fact that there are no particular statistics for sexual harassment for women living with disabilities makes it hard to understand how big the problem is.

“There are no statistics but what I advise is that the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, along with other stakeholders, should take specific measures that are aimed at addressing this particular problem because this will be the best way to handle it,” she advises.

Society should support and not hurt the disabled

Theogene Uwiringiyimana, the assistant director of Centre Marembo, a home for sexually abused girls, says women living with disabilities are very much exposed to sexual violence and that the worst part is that some don’t even know they are being violated.

“When it comes to sexual abuse, people with disabilities are the most targeted ones in their communities, especially those with mental incapacities. This has adverse effects because those women live a miserable life. But instead of hurting them, society needs to be there for them, we need to understand that these are vulnerable people who need our support,” he says.

Uwiringiyimana suggests that if this issue is to be addressed, different organisations need to put in more effort to mobilise and sensitise communities on the intensity of the problem.

He also says that policies present to protect those with disabilities should be rightfully implemented.

“The law and policies are not a problem but the procedures and the way they are implemented need to be enhanced,” he says.

Kellya Uwiragiye, the founder of Media for Deaf Rwanda, says it is sad that some men take advantage of the feebleness of people living with disabilities.

It is even worse for women with hearing impairment because they know they cannot even attempt to report the crime because of the communication barrier, she says.

“And the mindset that no one would sexually abuse women with disabilities worsens the problem because there are those who do abuse them,” she says.

Uwiragiye suggests that though the Government has done a lot to fight sexual harassment, more needs to be done, especially for women living with disabilities.

“I believe that the Government is doing its best to fight sexual violence not only for those with disabilities but women in general, however, they should put more effort through different partners and sensitise these women about their rights,” she says.

“They should encourage them to fight for their rights and wellbeing because no one should be violated based on gender or disability,” Uwiragiye adds.