Violence against women and girls with disabilities

Strains and risk factors

Living conditions and socialisation

The socialisation conditions of girls and boys with disabilities differ considerably from those of non-disabled persons. Identity, self-esteem and self-confidence of humans are developed depending on the social environment. People with disabilities are often not seen as people with individual skills though, and are primarily classified as disabled. This has negative impacts on the development of their identity. Shaping one’s identity largely depends on how one’s own disability is perceived and assessed by oneself and at the same time how it is assessed by others. 

During their socialisation and upbringing, girls and women with disabilities in particular are strongly encouraged to adjust. For many it is difficult to voice or assert their needs. The gender identity of disabled girls and women is of secondary importance compared with their disability; according to existing ideals of beauty, they are deemed to be unattractive, and the more visible the disability, the more women are perceived as “genderless”.

During their lives, girls and women with disabilities depend on the help and support provided by others. In most cases, this assistance and care is given by family members, partners or external professionals, and involves very intimate physical closeness. Boundary violations and abuse frequently occur in situations of care and support.

Boundary violations and abuse can also occur during medical examinations and therapeutic measures, which girls and women with disabilities need to make use of much more often than non-disabled persons.

Living in institutions

Some girls and women with disabilities have lived in institutions for the disabled since they were children. For a long time, these institutions were thought to be particularly protected areas, where abuse and violence could thus not happen. This picture has now changed because the reality is quite different.

Leading an autonomous life is hardly possible in some homes or workshops for people with disabilities due to everyday regimentation. In some institutions, there are still multi-bed rooms, or rooms and bathrooms that cannot be locked. It is thus hardly possible to enjoy one’s privacy and also experience one’s sexuality.

The findings of a current study on how disabled women are affected by violence in Germany (2011) prove that approximately 20% of women in institutions do not have their own room, and as many again cannot lock bathrooms and lavatories. Moreover, girls and women (but also boys and men) with disabilities, who live in residential facilities for the disabled and depend on care, cannot usually decide for themselves who they want to receive care from, and who they do not.

Hence, violent abuse is perpetuated time and again inside institutions by coresidents and employees. The institutions’ structures facilitate abuse and reduce the risk of violence being revealed. Women and girls in institutions are highly dependent on employees; there is an imbalance in power between the caregivers and the disabled. At the same time, this imbalance makes it more difficult to talk about the experience of violence.

In some institutions, there is as yet little experience on how to deal with violence and limited knowledge about possible consequences and violence prevention services. Employees are still afraid and unsure about what needs to be done. Meanwhile there are more and more positive changes though: There is growing awareness about the necessary support and help for disabled girls and women affected by violence. Women’s representatives have taken up work in some workshops and homes for people with disabilities. These representatives, who are women with disabilities, act as contact persons. Some institutions have developed concepts on how to deal with sexualised violence.