Unspeakable Inequalities: Understanding the cycle of structural violence: A case of women with disabilities

by Anita Ghai

As a child I dreamt being a doctor. I inherited this dream from my mother’s aspiration. However this dream was problematic, as I had polio at the age of two.   Thanks to my caring parents, I thought I was very lucky because we found a school in my locality.  The experience in school was enjoyable.  Gratefully, I also found a Rickshaw to drop me home from school as my father would drop me to school.

The guy was helpful and protective. Life was going fine. However the usual guy fell ill and he sent his brother to pick me up from school.  I observed that he was helpful; however, suddenly I felt that that he was trying to hold me powerfully, too powerfully!

While I sat on the seat, I felt his hands along my body. Later on I felt his hands at places where they were not supposed to be at all. When I tried  to push him away, he told me that I was ungrateful as he was helping.  At first I could not tell my mother what happened. I was scared to death of going to school.  I used several excuses such as illness to avoid going to school. After about a week, my mother became suspicious.  It was only then that I was relieved of guilt.

My parents took extra care after that and my mother started picking me up from school. However the fear of this man has stayed with me, all along. The fear was instrumental in creating a persona, which had nothing to do with intimacy and sexuality issues.

Vulnerability of disabled women

Violence and abuse of anyone regardless of gender, age, caste or any constituency is never permissible. Yet, there are many realities that defy articulation. I recall a feminist working on issues of sexuality in early 1980, was surprised that I was underscoring the issues of violence against women with disabilities. She was shocked as to why anyone would ‘want to assault a disabled woman’.

Over the years, I have understood that silence really is complicity — because we are all affected, we are all related and we do not accept the violence that affects women with disabilities. The fact is that girls and women with disabilities are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The fact is that they are considered as soft targets with the perpetrators assuming that they can get away easily. Since disabilities are multiple, many women are unable to comprehend or communicate about such acts of violence or assault they face in the family, neighborhood and society.

Structural Violence

On account of many submissions to Justice Verma Committee, it is clear that women and girls with disabilities in India are more vulnerable to violence; almost 80 per cent of women with disabilities are victims of violence and they are four times more likely to be victims. Disabled women are exposed to a higher incidence of violence compared to the population average.  In 2013, the latest CEDAW meeting describes women with disabilities as disadvantaged, despite a very clear understanding of women with disabilities who face violence and abuse, which is invisible to the society.

Though an understanding of direct violence is still somewhat recognizable, but structural violence is not understood by society. To me, structural violence can be understood in terms of absence of equitable life opportunities for the disabled — with specific reference to voices of the disabled women.

The stories reveal the many assumptions and inequities that contribute to their marginalization. Structural violence, according to Johan Galtung, exists when some groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc are assumed to have, and in fact do have, more access to goods, resources, and opportunities. This unequal advantage is built into the very social, political and economic systems that govern societies, states and the world.

Women with disabilities are marginalised in a patriarchal society in India. This social and cultural apartheid is sustained by the existence of a built environment, which lacks amenities for the disabled and solely caters to the needs of the more complete and able-bodied ‘Other’. This social disregard coupled with experiences of social, economic and political subjugation deny the disabled a voice, a space, and even power, to disrupt these deeply entrenched normative ideals that deprive them of their social presence and any semblance of identity.

To survive as a disabled person in such a blinkered social environment has meant coming to terms with unequal power relationships. This is reflected most clearly by socio-economic status, health issues, gender, has been confirmed by a range of studies that show that disabled adults are likely to have low earnings or be unemployed.  Critical is the fact that the disabled woman faces a hostile environment designed for “able-bodied’ society, enhancing the subtle violence.

Lack of access to communication, be it in the form of availability of Braille materials, augmentative measures or sign language training, heightens the oppression experienced by disabled women specifically in reporting abusive experiences.

To my mind, disability does imply broken persons, as an inadequate society is neatly tuned to the workings of normative structure serving political and economic ends. Such disregard results in an ignoring of pertinent issues with regard to disability from the point of view of both active social struggle as well as contemporary academic discourse. Unfortunately such incipient stigmatisation against those who carry the insidious label of ‘disability’ with them results in an exclusion that creates both a sense of despair and distress, often leading to a suppression and non- recognition of the ‘lack’ that marks them initially as different.

Thus violence is not a direct act of any decision or action made by a particular person but a result of an unequal distribution of resource creating a lack of agency that can fight the inhumane society. Structural violence has the effect of denying disabled people significant rights such as economic opportunity, social and political equality, a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem.  When disabled people experience starvation, have serious issues of sanitation and basic requirements such as toilets, and are locked in their houses, violence is taking place. Similarly, when disabled women suffer for reproductive rights and have diseases that could be prevented, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves spontaneously, a kind of violence is occurring — even if bullets or landmines are not used! Violence happens when optimum potential enhancement of a disabled woman is denied.

Institutional Violence

I believe we need to understand “institutional violence” too. “Institutional violence” and structural violence are not synonymous as the former includes violence that is perpetrated by families, neighborhood, schools, health centers, universities, and recreational organisations, as opposed to individuals.

In India, 59% of unmarried women have experienced violence from their natal family members, friends, and neighbours, and 54% of the ever-married women had faced violence from family members, natal family members and friends. Also, 78% of the women who faced violence had experienced severe mental distress as a result of violence.

Another area of concern is the possibility of disabled women experiencing subtle abuse and being controlled, rather than being in control of caring relationships. Most of the women who have shared their experiences with me feared abuse and violence more from the extended family and acquaintances. In this sense, though the family is directly responsible, it does lead to a ‘fear psychosis’ as many of their accounts are treated as overactive imagination.

As she recounted this to me, Neelima repressed her disgust. “I tried telling my mother about my uncle. She had such a look of disbelief as she said to me, ‘Arre who tumhe kyon tang karega? Usko ladki ki kami hai? Tumne kabhi apne aap to shishe mein dekha hai?’ (Why would he be interested you? Is he short of girls outside? Have you ever seen yourself in the mirror?)”

Thus women with disabilities are especially vulnerable; being less able to defend themselves as the risk of assault and rape from acquaintances is generally greater than that from strangers.

As an institution family tends to infantilize and patronize women with disabilities, and don’t consider them seriously; their choices are not respected — thus, denial is not respected as “denial”.  Women fear that they may not be seen as dependable — thus reporting abuse may not be believed; they also face damaging social values of being ‘inferior’ or ‘throwaway’, which can lead offenders to believe that the abuse is permitted. Many fellow disabled women report instances of male family members fondling a female’s breasts each time they touch them. Verbal abuses are also prevalent, such as “you are a burden to society” and “we are so unfortunate. We cannot even kill you”.

Violence by caregivers

Further, the relationship between the caregiver and care recipients is problematic as the creation of dependency is linked to the  ‘burden’ caused by the disabled person. One of the primary reasons for under-reporting is the fact that 99% of the perpetrators are family, friends and/or caretakers (such as residential staff like maids, drivers etc.) Perpetrators often use threats, such as deprivation of food, charger of the wheel chair, social activity or personal care in order to force the person with a disability to submit to the abuse.

It’s also important to note that though the women would like to report abuse, they often lack the resources or information to do so.

I have noticed when women with disabilities have reached the hospital, they find venereal diseases or bruises all over their bodies, and yet the doctors, too, overlook the abuse. Even in hospitals, women often hear the staff hurling abuse such as “one who can’t wipe her own shit has no right to be concerned about her hair, so let me chop off your damn hair”.

I feel that there is a close alliance between direct, structural and cultural violence, as subtle forms of violence include unfair intimate relationships, social exclusion, circumscribed autonomy and a higher tolerance for ill-treatment within segregated settings, affecting the daily experiences of disabled women. For instance many mothers request for hysterectomies. On inquiring, they say they want to control the menstrual hygiene; they also fear that sexual abuse might lead to pregnancy.  The tragic part is that since the systems do not support the mothers of disabled daughters, they consider abuse as legitimate abuse.

My understanding is that mainstream research on violence indicates a lack of understanding about issues of abuse of women with disabilities. As secure, accessible and protective accommodations for disabled women are available, I protest the label of being ‘vulnerable’. My contention is that the issues of women with disabilities should be understood structurally. As a myriad political, economic, legal and social forces are instrumental to the ongoing likelihood of violence and conflict, unless the underlying inequalities are solved, the violence will continue to appear.

Asexualisation of disabled women

Finally, I would like to point to the politics of control, which gets activated through the nature of the ‘gaze’ and violence. Gaze has been historically established, pervasive, powerful, gendered and engendering structure of control and dominance in a given culture. My contention is that in case of the disabled women, it is not only the male gaze, but also an able bodied gaze, which has to be encountered. In my interviews with disabled women, the most difficult discussions are around a culture where any deviation from a norm is seen as a marked deviation, and the impaired body becomes a symbol of imperfection. The myth of the beautiful body defines the impaired female body as unfeminine and unacceptable. The ramifications of such historical rendering are to be found in the North Indian Punjabi culture, where, for instance, girls — though allowed to interact with their male cousins — are not allowed to sleep in the same room. Disabled girls, on the other hand, are under no such prohibitions, as they are considered sexually safe, or asexual (Ghai, 2002c). The assumption is that they will not perceive any of the interaction as a ‘come on signal’, nor invite a sexual encounter. It is almost as if a disabled girl is perceived not like other girls but ‘above all that’, which has the effect of freeing the other to imitate any action, which in more cases than not turns out to be exploitative.

As the personal narrative of Simi reveals, “When I was young, I would be thrilled at being allowed to sleep in the same room as Vipin, who was my first cousin. However, as I grew up, I realised that this benevolent gesture of my family was to be understood as a complete de-sexualization of my body. Later that same cousin proposed to me and said that he was willing to satisfy my sexual desires, if I promised to keep quiet and not publicise the illicit liaison.”

Thus ‘asexual objectification’ highlights the disregard of the dangers of sexual violation to which disabled girls are exposed. Although never reaching the headlines, there are enough instances, where their own fathers and uncles have sexually abused disabled girls. As one of my informants, whose sister has cerebral palsy revealed: “My sister always had problems in communicating because of speech problems. However after her school gave argumentative aids to her, she shared with me an experience, which was absolutely horrifying. At first, I did not believe her, yet her tears finally convinced me. My Dad’s younger brother took advantage of the fact that both my mother and I had to leave town for work and college. As there was no school that would accept her after the age of 13, we had to leave her at home. He stayed with us for a month, and my sister became a wreck during that time. However, as she could not communicate, we attributed her agitation to her disability. It was only later that we came to know how he raped her everyday for a month or so. The maid who was to take care of her also cooperated with him for money. Even after this episode, my father refused to break his relationship with his brother. After being threatened that we all would commit suicide, he stopped visiting our house.”   (Quoted in Ghai, 2003, p.  )

Thus violence against women with disabilities needs to be understood in terms of the relationship to gendered power relations and the historical, social and material conditions that perpetuate and reinforce violence. Violence not only includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as in hitting, rape and verbal abuse, but also incorporates other forms of violence, for example medical exploitation, institutional abuse and structural violence.

Even though some positive answers have come in the form of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, some problems like the gender neutral definition of the perpetrator in sexual offences, as is currently the case, is not in the interest of disabled women. Also, the committee was much more sensitive to the issues, but the ordinance has given the “bare minimum”.

My submission is that ‘personal is political’ is still a slogan that we must internalize.  Disabled women have to be a part of all the possible consultations that create disable friendly structures. More important, we need to share our lived realities, so that specter of violence and abuse can be eliminated.  We need to tell ourselves that we are entitled not only to the citizenship rights, but to connect with the “able” society so that a safe world can be created.

To quote Thích Nhất HạnhLiving Buddha, Living Christ,

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from us and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come. ”


Dr. Anita Ghai is an associate professor in the department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She is a disability rights activist in the areas of education, health, sexuality and gender.  She is the author of (Dis)Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women (2003) and has also co-authored The Mentally Handicapped with Anima Sen.

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