Double discrimination: Disabled women face increased violence in wartime
At least 1 billion people around the world have a disability, whether sensory (affecting the five main senses), mental, or physical, according to UN Enable, a UN agency that advocates and promotes rights for disabled people. And just like any other population caught up in a war zone, people with disabilities suffer displacement, injury, and trauma. An estimated 6.5 million of the 43.51 million people who have been displaced due to conflict globally are living with a disability.
Yet in conflict, when the social fabric is vulnerable and resources are limited, people with disabilities face increased violence while their specific protection needs often go ignored. Women who are displaced due to conflict are often forced to leave their support systems behind and to abandon their assistive devices such as prosthetics and wheelchairs, according to Women Enabled, a Washington, DC-based organization that advocates for women and girls, with a special focus on those with disabilities. They become even more vulnerable than they would be otherwise to further violence like domestic abuse, neglect, and sexualized violence. In fact, women with disabilities face such violence at twice the level of able-bodied people.
Little information or data exist on the toll this violence has taken on a group of people around the world who are said to face “double discrimination”—because of their disability and their gender. In Syria, for example, the women, men, and children who are disabled or have become disabled due to the conflict have been called the “forgotten victims of the conflict,” according to a September 2013 report by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
This woman sits in a tent at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan unable to move her legs after a stroke that was brought on by stress—she was told that her son had been killed in Syria. The women, men, and children who are disabled or have become disabled in the Syria war have been called the “forgotten victims.” (Lauren Wolfe)
Beyond that, the response to this particular population barely exists. According to a report by Women Enabled, an international advocacy organization for the promotion of human rights for women and girls with disabilities, women with disabilities in post-conflict situations are sometimes viewed by aid workers as the “permanent victim,” both in conflict and by their disability, therefore they are often ignored in terms of gaining access to treatment.
“Women with disabilities are left out of humanitarian aid responses in conflict for the same reason they are left out in the society of their developing country,” says Neema Namadamu, an activist based in Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and founder of Maman Shujaa, or “Hero Women,” a women’s association that advocates for the rights of women, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and communities. “The humanitarian need is so great that the government and aid agencies focus on where they can have the greatest volume of impact.”
Namadamu says that aid is often targeted to “address the need they can see,” meaning those that aid workers can see are suffering, which often excludes disabled individuals who are unable to access aid distribution sites.
But these women exist wherever there is conflict.
Angela, a young woman from Uganda, was born with a disability that has left her unable to walk. Angela, who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers for an August 2010 report, “As If We Weren’t Human,” lives in an internally displaced persons camp in her country. She told HRW about being raped by a man who broke into her house—this, after experiencing years of abuse by her husband. She said she fears her HIV status as well as future attacks but is unable to protect herself on either front. “I want to check my HIV status at a health center but I do not have transport to town,” she said. “The hospital is far and my bicycle is broken. Others in the community will say that it’s my fault and that I run around with men.”
In Uganda, during an onslaught of violence from the Lord’s Resistance Army between 1996 and 2008, rebels often specifically targeted women with disabilities as punishment for being disabled, according to HRW. These women became easy marks. Florence, from the Amuru district in northern Uganda, was partially blind and unable to identify her neighbors when the rebel group came to her village. The rebels responded by pushing in her eyes, leaving her completely blind, according to the Human Rights Watch report. Claudia, a young woman from the Kitgum district of northern Uganda, was violently beaten after she did not answer the rebels’ questions because she was deaf.
Women like Angela, Florence, and Claudia are frequently unable to gain access to health care and other services, reports Women Enabled. If someone cannot walk to a health care facility, or if there is no interpreter on site, care is often forfeited. Refugee camps generally do not accommodate the disabled. And adequate care is often not provided during a conflict economy with weakening health care systems and infrastructure. Food and resources are scarce, and competition leaves those with disabilities struggling greatly. One woman told Human Rights Watch that people often told her, “You are useless. You are a waste of food. You should just die so that others can eat the food.”
Caught in an unending loop of punishment, women with disabilities have little reason to report violence perpetrated on them, whether at a refugee camp or in a community under siege. Yet not reporting an attack or seeking treatment for an injury can leave a woman open to developing another disability, whether physical or mental—an inherent vulnerability in conflict areas in any case.
“Anyone affected by disasters or conflict is more vulnerable to mental health and psychological problems—which may result in misunderstandings and further isolation and social exclusion from families and communities,” says a 2007 International Red Cross and Red Crescent World Disasters Report on Disability.
On the flip side of living with a disability when conflict comes are the people who suffer a lifelong injury during the fighting. According to the World Health Organization, up to a quarter of all disabilities results from injuries stemming from conflict. For every child killed in conflict, three live with some form of a permanent disability due to injury, WHO says.
The injuries can occur from conflict-related weapons such as landmines or bombs, or during combat. In some places, like Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unexploded landmines pose a threat to millions of people—mostly those who live in rural areas, according to rights organizations.
But not all injuries stem from combat-related events.
A 2009 story by UN news service IRIN says that the number of disabled children in DRC continues to increase as a result of the deteriorating health infrastructure and the ongoing violence and displacement. “Minimal access to health care, clean water, and overall poor nutrition during pregnancy lead to common congenital disabilities in children, such as spina-bifida and limb deformities, and young children predisposed to early childhood diseases such as meningitis and polio,” says Laura Keyser, a physical therapist who works for Heal Africa, a Michigan-based organization that works to improve the health of women and children in DRC. Keyser adds that women pregnant from rape often do not seek pre- or perinatal care, which compounds the potential for children being born with disabilities into a doubly dangerous environment.
Additionally, people with disabilities in developing or war-torn countries (not to mention developed ones) may face discrimination that inhibits access to legal and health care. James Hathaway, founder of Clear Path International, a Washington-based NGO that helps victims of war in post-conflict zones, says that many developing nations lag behind in their attitudes toward disabled citizens: Certain beliefs include viewing the disabled as bad luck, or as cursed and unproductive to society.
According to the International Disability Alliance, which monitors compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, many children with disabilities are subjected to painful and harmful practices by their family and their community to “rid” them of the evil spirit they possess. In some areas of the world, women and girls with disabilities undergo forced sterilizations. Women with disabilities are also subjected into forced marriages as a way to “cure” their disability. And, as with those who were already disabled when war began, these women are now more vulnerable to sexualized and other violence.
In 2000, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were created to help solve the world’s most pressing concerns for poverty, disease, hunger, and education. Yet none of the goals, or their “21 targets, 60 indicators,” include any information regarding women with disabilities.
With the astounding lack of data on the devastating toll that disability has taken on the lives of women and children in conflict zones, it is impossible to know how many people have suffered untreated.
Namadamu in DRC explains why numerical data is crucial to addressing the needs of the disabled.
“In order to justify aid programs, international NGOs require statistics regarding the need,” she says. “And since there is no hard data on women with disabilities, there are no special aid programs for women with disabilities.”
Increasing the awareness of women and girls living with disabilities in conflict—by both the media and on an international policy level—can help foster a more inclusive aid world. But it is up to those within refugee or conflict areas to see what usually remains out of the obvious field of vision, and assistance. They are there, and they need help.
More articles by Category: Disability, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Discrimination, War, Rape, Sexualized violence