Women With Disabilities: Inadequate Support For India’s ‘Invisible Victims’

In 2013, India took great strides in reforming its laws and protocols on sexual violence. However, as per a Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday, women and girls with disabilities in India are more vulnerable to sexual violence. This means they do not have equal access to justice, making them the “invisible victims of sexual violence,” according to Nidhi Goyal, a disability rights activist.

After a 23-year old medical student was brutally gang-raped in India in December 2012, the government significantly enhanced its laws on sexual violence. There were also several provisions to increase the participation and protection of women and girls with disabilities.  These included the right to record their statement with police in the safety of their home or a place of their choice, the right to have their police statements videotaped, the right to assistance by a “special educator” or interpreter when the complaint is recorded and during trial, and exemption from having to repeat their videotaped statement at trial.

Despite various key provisions, according to the Human Rights Watch report published in November 2017 on barriers to justice and support services for sexual assault survivors in India, “women and girls who survive rape and other sexual violence often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals.” Additionally, police recurrently refuse to register sexual violence complaints, or provide adequate protection for victims and witnesses. The negative toll of this treatment by officials is compounded by a lack of health care, counseling, and legal support for victims, demonstrating the lack of enforcement of the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act.

These obstacles for sexual violence victims to receive fair treatment are even harsher for women and girls with disabilities, who already face a higher risk of sexual violence in the first place. This is because individuals with physical disabilities may have to ask for assistance which involves trusting others. Also, if they do end up in a violent situation, women with physical disabilities may find it more difficult to escape or communicate abuse. For women and girls with intellectual disabilities, some may not be aware that non-consensual sexual acts are criminal and should be reported. Again, these hurdles are compounded by the fact that few police officers are trained to handle cases involving women with disabilities, resulting in the officers refusing to provide assistance, reporting the incident insufficiently, or failing to provide information on the right to free legal aid for survivors or their families. This could be tied to why women with disabilities typically have difficulty securing compensation even after suffering extreme violence, trauma, or economic hardship.

It’s evident that the primary issue perpetuating the victimization of disabled women and girls is the failure of India’s justice system to properly enforce laws and policies to protect the rights of women affected by sexual violence. The first step to ensuring the implementation of these laws is training police, judicial officers, medical officers, and judges on the rights of sexual violence survivors, including women and girls with disabilities. This means that they are aware of the key provisions outlined in the Criminal Law Amendment of 2013. Furthermore, the Indian government must collect data on sexual and gender-based violence to track the progress or lack thereof in ensuring justice for survivors of sexual violence to have a more complete picture of areas that need to be enforced or amended further.

The strides India has made to attempt to address sexual violence in the country are commendable, however, without adequate enforcement the laws are simply words and the suffering of survivors will continue.