'Invisible Victims' of Violence: A Gender and Disability Perspective of Coronavirus in India

The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented rise in the cases of domestic violence. Women with disabilities are located at such a disadvantaged position in the current social matrix that they are more vulnerable to any form of violence than non-disabled women. Crisis perpetuates the existing inequalities in the society which has made women with disabilities even more vulnerable as they stand at a unique intersection of gender and disability. However, their issues remain invisible around this narrative. Their numbers are not accounted for properly in the official statistics. There is simply no recognition of such issues in the official data which fails to provide any disaggregated information around disability. Further, the current redressal mechanism under the existing laws completely overlooks the special needs of women with disabilities and the justice system continues to remain inaccessible to them. There is an urgent need to approach disasters from an intersectional perspective which can be crucial for the government in reaching out to the most vulnerable. 

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has sent shockwaves across the globe. Beyond its easily perceivable economic consequences, the pandemic has revealed the deep social inequalities with which the current structure of our society is entwined. The gender perspective of these inequalities can be witnessed in the unprecedented number of domestic violence cases against women around the globe. The United Nations (UN) agency for improving reproductive and maternal health—United Nations Population Fund or UNFPA, estimated during the early days of the pandemic that if the lockdown imposed, continued for six months, the world could witness around 31 million cases of domestic violence (Hindu 2020).

Intersectional Perspective

Current sociological theories on disaster tell us that they disrupt the social system (Herring 2013). However, this understanding is limited and often flawed as it is seen from a patriarchal lens. Thus, it becomes crucial to understand the implications of a disaster and the inequalities it perpetuates through a gender lens. This not only highlights the experience of women but also reviews how gender can be crucial in determining the vulnerability of a group during a disaster. However, the conflation of different identities into the word "woman" under-theorises their impact on different identities, and hence, it becomes important to focus on the various intersections within this social identity. Disability is one such intersection that increases the vulnerability of women because of the already existing socially constructed roles assigned to gender and disability. Therefore, there is a need to examine this crisis from an intersectional perspective of gender and disability.

Women with disabilities are “excluded within an exclusion” as the discrimination they face intersects on two vulnerabilities of gender and disability. This discrimination determines their position in the social hierarchy, where they are categorised as “unwanted and unproductive human resources” (Gurung 2010). This intersection affects all aspects of their life, social, political, and personal, and moves them into the severely marginalised category (Dhungana 2006). Research from national-level data in South Africa has also revealed how disability intersects with gender to produce low-level outcomes in education and employment resulting in a severe gender gap in poverty estimates between men and women with disability (Moodley and Graham 2015).  A study conducted after the 2007 earthquake in Nepal has revealed how women with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the disaster because of these vulnerabilities (Lord et al 2016).  As such, UN women recommended countries adopt an intersectional lens in order to make their disaster management policies gender-responsive and disability-inclusive.

Vulnerability of Women with Disabilities

The vulnerability of women with disabilities is based on the naturalistic interpretation which perceives them as physically and mentally weaker sections of the community. This notion overlooks the social, cultural, and political aspects that put women with disabilities in a subordinate position. As Elaine Enarson states “gender shapes the social worlds within which natural events occur” (Enarson 2000). They face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination because of which they are side-lined from the mainstream approach and are caught up in a “catch-22” situation (Mohanty 2005). As a result of this, they are often isolated, neglected and become more prone to violence (Boylan 1991). Studies have also concluded that women with disabilities are two to four times more vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence than non-disabled women (Dunkle et al 2018).

The disability-inclusive disaster risk reduction guidelines (or DiDRR) issued by the National Disaster Management Authority in September 2019 also acknowledge that the risk of sexual- and gender-based violence increases during disasters as the gaps within the security system and law enforcement increase due to the disasters. It also takes into account the fact that current capacity-building programmes are not approached from the lens of gender and disability which hinders the knowledge of these implications. Further, as women with disabilities continue to face intersecting and multiple forms of discrimination because of the already existing stigma around gender and disability, they are not included in the decision-making process as a result of which their needs and concerns remain excluded.

Women with disabilities are located at a severely disadvantaged position in the current social matrix. The imposition of lockdown due to COVID-19 has made women more vulnerable to violence but the concerns of 11.8 million women with disabilities (MOSPI 2016) remain invisible in the narrative around this issue. This can be immediately attributed to lack of reporting on the specific instances of violence against women with disabilities. However, the issue suffers from the myriad social and normative causes that define this complete invisibility that this article seeks to unravel. 

 'Missing Women' Phenomenon

The missing women phenomenon is associated with the low sex ratio, that is, uneven male to female ratios show that 100 million women worldwide are missing. According to Amartya Sen (1999), these missing women are due to gender inequalities that prioritise males and neglect “female health and nutrition, especially but not exclusively during childhood.” Disability rights advocates have raised this multiple times attributing it to the social and cultural factors surrounding disability (Mampatta 2015). This data bias is amplified when it intersects with social and cultural factors related to gender (Ali 2020). The phrase “invisible women” is used to highlight the fact that they merely exist in society but are unable to participate in it as equal members (Ali 2021).  

Women with disabilities have been trying hard to establish their own identities in a complex society where they experience this unique intersection of gender and disability (Dawn 2013). Statistics detailing the prevalence of women with disabilities are often inaccurate, outdated and hard to come by. They only seek to cover the number of women with disabilities, but no studies are conducted to quantify their issues. In the official census, the number of women with disabilities is vastly underrepresented, due to numerous reasons. The stigma and shame attached with disability causes women with disabilities to be hidden and, thus, unaccounted for in surveys and censuses. Some other factors include sex-based infanticide, selective abortion, and violence against women with disabilities (Humphrey 2016). 

Lack of Disaggregated Data on Violence

Lack of data around disability contributes not only to the invisibility of people with disabilities but also to the ineffective or inappropriate emergency responses (Oosterhoff and Kett 2014). This statement stands true in the current scenario where data plays an important role in mitigating the effects of a situation. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in India, which is responsible for collecting and analysing crime data, fails to provide disaggregated data on women with disabilities in its report (Pandit 2021). The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in its concluding observations to the Government of India has also expressed concern over the lack of disaggregated data in the NCRB on gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities and intimate partner violence (Bhateja 2019). In another set of data released by the National Commission of Women (NCW) in mid-April 2020, it is suggested that there was an almost 100% increase in domestic violence during the lockdown (Joy 2020). Further, the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) conducted a study to document the need for legal help during the lockdown. The study showed that Delhi, the national capital, ranks third in the highest number of domestic violence cases during the lockdown (Garg 2020). While all these studies have addressed the issue of gender-based violence in detail, it fails to address the same problems from a disability angle. This failure shows that there is a sheer lack of knowledge about the concerns of women with disabilities at an institutional level. It also provides an impetus to the increasing invisibility of women with disabilities.

Inaccessibility of Justice: The Cause behind Under-reporting 

Gender stereotypes and prejudices in the justice system curtail the right of women with disabilities to access justice in cases of gender-based violence (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2019). There are various problems that they face ranging from difficulty in escaping violent situations due to mobility issues, communication barriers for women with hearing and speech impairment and non-consensual sexual acts meted out to women with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, who may not be aware of the heinous acts of crime meted out to them. These factors are compounded by the various barriers attributed to the inaccessibility of procedural and physical aspects of the justice system such as physical barriers to judicial and police authorities, communication barriers, lack of sensitisation of police, inaccessible documentation and complicated judicial process (Human Rights Watch 2018). This has been duly recorded by a study conducted by Human Rights Watch which analysed case studies of 17 women with disabilities who have suffered sexual violence. Even the 2014 guidelines and protocols for medico-legal care for victims/survivors of sexual violence given by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare acknowledges that women and girls with disabilities face particular barriers to reporting sexual abuse because of communication barriers, dependency on caregivers (often the abuser) or for simply being dismissed as mentally retarded. Women with disabilities fear reporting violence as they fear retaliation from caregivers who are often the ones responsible for such violence (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2019). Such impunity fostered by the justice system has led to invisibility of issues that women with disabilities face.

Redressal against Violence: Normative Failure

The international and national laws focused on women have historically neglected any aspect related to women with disabilities. This invisibility has only perpetuated the discrimination, abuse and neglect that they face. The convention on the rights of persons with disabilities in India sought to rectify this by specifically including a separate provision under Article 6 for women with disabilities. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has acknowledged this intersectional and multiple discrimination against women with disabilities by incorporating a specific provision under Section 4 for women with disabilities on the lines of the international convention. However, the enactment has failed to change the normative realities of women with disabilities who continue to suffer from structural discrimination. Laws have therefore failed to acknowledge the intersection of gender and disability. The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005 does not cater to the specific needs of disabled women as this law is targeted towards women in general. The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities observed in its concluding observation that India only has limited availability of accessible shelters for women with disabilities who are victims of violence. It clearly pointed out that the normative framework lacks effective remedies and redress, such as rehabilitation and compensation, for women with disabilities who have been victims of violence (UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2019). As there is an absence of legal redress specifically for women with disabilities, it discourages them to come forward and their issues remain behind closed doors. 

Conclusions

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 around the globe is unlike any other disaster. It poses new and distinct challenges to the government who must adopt unique measures to deal with it. An intersectional approach thus becomes important which acknowledges the reality that individuals do not experience abuse and violence as members of a homogeneous group. It focuses on multidimensional layers of identities by acknowledging the lived realities and experiences of those individuals and their heightened disadvantage.

Despite India having ratified both the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women, laws on violence continue to overlook the specific needs of women with disabilities. Therefore, in an everyday situation where the law and order is not affected by a disaster or calamity, women with disabilities tend to undergo problems specific to their disabilities and are continuously failed by the system in addressing them. When the country is facing an unprecedented crisis like COVID-19, women with disabilities tend to be disproportionately affected. It is, therefore, important to approach such a crisis and its impact from an intersectional perspective as it gives a better analysis of the complex interaction a society has in a crisis. It can be crucial in adopting a new practice that is significant in reaching the most vulnerable first.

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