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.


Unspeakable Inequalities: Debarred from Full Citizenship

by Amba Salelkar

I am, by no means, an expert in disability rights and policy, though this is my area of work. The experiences of persons with disabilities have been much better documented by my peers who have decades of experience in the field. That said, my previous avatar as a criminal trial lawyer exposed me to a subject which concerns persons with disabilities greatly – the use of violence, and the threat of violence.

Violence is of many kinds, and in this blogpost I hope to point out some of the challenges which are faced when it comes to women with disabilities.

I’ll start with sexual assault, because it is the most topical. It was hard to have our voices heard during the Justice Verma recommendations and the surrounding outrage on rape and sexual assault. I believe that this was because the sexual assault of women with disabilities falls so far away from the popular cultural notions of rape – conventionally attractive, delicate victims who are made the victims of lust by savage rapists, lurking on the fringes of society. While the media seems appalled with violence against women, the fact is that the most “talked about” cases fall within this stereotype – stranger rape – which makes for only a small percentage of the actual rapes that are at least reported in this Country. Women with disabilities don’t have to worry about dressing provocatively, going out late at night, or their own economic empowerment being the reasons for their being targeted – these are relative luxuries, and often impossibilities for them. Most public service announcements and campaigns don’t concern them, even though it is estimated that 8 out of 10 women with disabilities will undergo sexual assault in their lifetime.

So where does this assault and abuse take place? Let’s start with the home, where women with disabilities, disempowered from the start, are left at the mercy of caregivers, family members, neighbours with easy access to the house. The level of dependency is such that they could be very well be subject to abuse from the one person that they depend on to make that call to the Police Station. Or by the one person who should be obligated to teach them the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch”. Some of these women are institutionalized from a very young age, in places with no monitoring mechanisms, and where gruesomeness comes to light often when it is too late.

I want to, however, make one thing clear here: women with disabilities have as much right to a happy and fulfilling sexual relationship as any other person, and calls for treating sexual contact with a person with disability as “statutory rape” are nonsensical. The problem here is awareness and access to justice, and denying legal capacity in this manner is not solving any problems whatsoever.

Closely tied to sexual violence is the violence committed upon women with disability and reproductive rights. Women with disabilities, particularly women in institutions, are routinely given hysterectomies on the grounds of hygiene – that they are unable to manage menstruation and hence they should be relieved of this monthly occurrence “for their own good”. Some Governments also upheld this view. Besides the blatant falsehood that backs such a view, it also leaves women with disabilities at higher risk for sexual assault, because sadly enough, the only way in which such instances ever actually come to light was when inmates of institutions become pregnant.

Institutions for women with disabilities are rife with instances of abuse beyond what has been described above – the process begins as an act of abuse, where women with psychosocial/intellectual disabilities are abandoned by family members, or run away on account of abuse. Obviously, because such information is inaccessible to them, they have no idea on what to do. On the streets, abusers further victimize these women, and it is not uncommon for women to be found by NGO workers with clear signs of having been abused. Since community based rehabilitation is not an option in most cities, women with disabilities are remanded to institutions, even against their will, from which they can never leave, because provisions of the Mental Health Act in India have resulted in the position that a person with psychosocial disability can only be released from a Mental Health Institution after someone comes forth willing to stand surety. The other option is that an inmate applies from within the institution for release upon recovery – however this is an option which is seldom exercised, mainly on account of a lack of access to justice for women in institutions. Institutionalization is perhaps better regulated under the Mental Health Act than say the Beggary Acts which allow for indefinite incarceration of “incurably helpless” beggars – mostly persons with disabilities.

Let’s not forget the abuse and violence that happens on account of legitimate medical treatment of women with disabilities – particularly women with psychosocial disabilities. This includes unmodified ECT, psychosurgery and even sterilization as a method of treatment – all administered against the will and without the consent of the patient, and perfectly legal under present Indian Law0.

For women with disabilities who are not institutionalized, there are more silent forms of abuse which happen, behind closed doors, for which Indian Law is ambiguous. This may include deprivation of medication or food and other basic necessities. The victim can take theoretically take recourse to the Domestic Violence Law, though the definition of “domestic violence” does not consider the needs and vulnerabilities of women with disabilities. Time and again, however, it has been the experience that caregivers of persons with disabilities have more sympathy in such accusations, and that derogatory treatment may not be taken seriously by a judiciary which may not be able to empathize fully with the disabled.

What is also dangerous however, is the violence which can be inflicted on women with disabilities that is entirely State sanctioned – by enforcing guardianship under the National Trusts Act and the Mental Health Act, the State is promoting “civil death”, a term propagated by the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre, and to which I am inclined to agree. Women with psychosocial disabilities, developmental and intellectual disabilities are at serious risk of losing their right to property and independent control of financial resources merely on account of their disability. Right now, for example, the Reserve Bank of India insists that a bank account being opened by persons who fall under the National Trusts Act – persons with cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities – must be done so with a guardian. Without financial independence and control over assets, women with disabilities are at extreme risk of violence and neglect at the hands of family members and caregivers.

How do we solve these issues? As I stated in the beginning, the major concern is that of a lack of information to women and girls with disabilities. For girls who manage to get to schools, proper information on what violence is, what sexual assault is, and how to seek redressal and make complaints must be given in an age appropriate and accessible manner. As for girls and women who remain at home, a great deal of assistance can be got from compulsory registration of disabilities by local governments. Women and girls with disabilities can be reached out to, and given adequate information, and in the event that they can make a complaint to the officer administering the information, adequate protection can be given.

Legal reform is very important. We need to move to an empowerment model, as envisaged by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and bring our legislation up to International Standards. This includes removal of all impediments to exercise of legal capacity and promotion of assisted decision making instead of guardianship. The Special Rapporteur has held, time and again, that. Involuntary institutionalization is violative of the UNCRPD, yet it persists in our draft Mental Health Care Bill. Mental health care professionals, guided by the WHO frame of reference, have been gatekeepers of persons with psychosocial disabilities, and have set irreconcilable inequality between these and other health care patients; worse, continuing methods of ‘treatment’ which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Punishment has termed as “torture” (note: India hasn’t ratified the Torture Convention, but that’s a story for another blogpost).

Thirdly, accessibility is an absolute necessity to empowerment. I’m not just talking about accessible complaint making mechanisms and judicial processes. That is a given. I also mean accessible roads, transport systems, offices, schools, appliances and equipment made in line with universal design – all of this plays an important role in empowering women with disabilities, and helping them be self reliant and more importantly, lead a dignified life, because ultimately, it is these barriers that make a person disabled. To quote this brilliant write up, “…physical and social barriers that create disability are as fundamental as the structural disadvantages that have made (and continue to make) women second-class citizens.”

It seems like a lot of work ahead, but voices from around the world are claiming the same thing. Ratification of Conventions is easy – it’s making them into a reality that is the challenge and is something that we all have to make sure the Indian Government does. I am hopeful, and here I will quote my late colleague Rahul Cherian, (who apparently still manages to get the last word on everything I do).

“When people are demanding their basic rights, no power in the world is strong enough to stop them getting what they want.” 


Amba Salelkar works for the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy started by lawyer Rahul Cherian, as a social network platform for people with disabilities. The group looks at upcoming legislation from the perspective of the disabled and presses for inclusive measures. A graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Salelkar is a lawyer with 6 years of experience in litigation. She has presented research papers both nationally and internationally, and has also been teaching and writing in her spare time. Her area of expertise includes Criminal Law, Family Law, Constitutional and Media Law.