Ninety percent of Australian women with intellectual disability have experienced sexual abuse according to figures heard by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability this week.
The first part of the Commission’s Public Hearing 17 on the experiences of women and girls with disability, which had a particular focus on family, domestic, and sexual violence, was held on 13 - 14 October.
Advocacy and support organisations for women with disability presented to the Royal Commission over the two days.
Key themes of the hearings this week were a lack of services to support those who experience sexual violence and abuse, the lack of respect for the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls with disability, and gaps in legal protections for females and gender diverse people with disability.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission, Kate Eastman SC, says submissions have already been made to the Commission by many women and girls with disability who have experienced years of different types of abuse.
“Women with disability have told the Royal Commission that they have experienced severe physical and sexual abuse as well as financial abuse at the hands of a spouse,” she explains.
“Women and girls have documented their experiences of coercive control by families, parents, guardians, including guardians who socially and geographically isolate and financially exploit women in their care.”
Ms Eastman notes in one submission a woman with disability shared her experience of reporting an assault by another resident at her group home, only to be disbelieved by staff at the home and to have no choice but to keep living with the person who had assaulted her.
Other examples included police not pursuing charges after reports of abuse, sexual assaults of girls with disability in school not being addressed, and children being removed from their family to be placed in foster care with abusive carers.
A common theme of these examples to the Commission is these women and girls with disability not having anyone believe their disclosure of abuse.
These hearings also focused on experiences of people with disability who identify as LGBTIQ+, although the section of the hearing dedicated to gender diverse people with disability was held privately to provide a trauma-informed and culturally safe environment.
The second part of this hearing will be held early next year, in the hopes it will allow people sharing their personal experiences of family, domestic and sexual violence to do so in person as State borders will be open.
Many women with disability aren't allowed motherhood or reproductive rights
The Commission heard that many women with disabilities have had their children removed against their wishes.
“Children of women with disability have been removed when their mothers have experienced domestic violence,” Ms Eastman says.
“Mothers with intellectual disability have told us about the barriers they have encountered, even in understanding the paperwork in relation to child custody proceedings.
“Social workers have told the Royal Commission about the lack of social and legal supports for parents with intellectual disability.”
These submissions by mothers and social workers included the story of a woman with disability who gave her baby up for adoption but was refused her later request for birth control because her doctor told her the decision had to be made by her parents.
Experts presenting to the Commission also discussed how the reproductive and sexual rights of women and girls were being taken away through forced sterilisation or contraception.
Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) Executive Director, Carolyn Frohmader, says courts have justified sterilisation as a form of prevention for sexual abuse, to make the management of a woman’s menstruation easier for carers, to prevent the women with disability from having a child who might have a disability, or because the women were not perceived to have the ability to be an able parent.
Ms Frohmader says women with disability living in group homes have also been pressured to have sex with male residents to manage “challenging behaviours” from men with disability.
The lack of say in decisions about their own bodies and lives is something which greatly affects First Nations women with disability, says Thelma Schwartz, Principal Legal Officer with Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service (QIFVLS).
Ms Schwartz says there is a widespread “complete lack of respect” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders women and girls with disability, who are not recognised for who they are and the worth they bring to society, but need to be involved in decision-making which impacts on them.
“They should have an active say in what occurs with them, what their pathways are,” she says.
“They should have control over their destinies. They should have control over their bodies. You know, they should not be silenced, which I see way too often in my practice, and ignored or, you know, put in a corner and forgotten about.”
Kathryn Fordyce, Chief Executive Officer of sexual assault support service Laurel House, says one of the issues women and girls with disability face in reporting abuse is that the perpetrator is regularly close to them.
“We know all too often that abuse happens from family members or from other trusted people within a family or within service providers and, therefore, being able to have time away from the abuser is important," says Ms Fordyce.
“We also know that there is communication barriers and so a trusted person needs to be able to understand the communication approach or the communication style of the person with the disability, make sure that they've got appropriate vocabulary or communication aids, and be somebody who is a responsive person who can hear them and create space for the person to be able to give that disclosure.”
Ms Schwartz told the commission of one such example of a woman who was deaf and experienced violence.
The police were called on her behalf by the male perpetrator and when they arrived police assumed that the man was the victim rather than the woman, as she was unable to communicate with them verbally. She was not given access to an interpreter and charges were laid against her.
Ms Eastman says violence and abuse of women and girls with disability is preventable, but that prevention requires a recognition of the drivers of violence.
“It also requires a commitment to change, to change the norms, practices, and structures that allow for gender inequality,” she says.
“It requires a change in society's attitudes and the norms that shape the context in which violence occurs.”
Ableism perpetuating violence against women with disability
An underlying driver of violence, which was discussed by many of the hearing’s witnesses, was ableism.
“We will make little progress until we recognise ableism and the intersecting forms of inequality and discrimination that are the underlying drivers of violence and abuse of women and girls with disability,” Ms Eastman says.
“We have to examine ableism and these intersecting forms of inequality and discrimination that operate throughout the Australian legal system in policy and practice frameworks, but, most importantly, through community attitudes and to understand how these matters underpin violence, neglect, abuse and exploitation.”
Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, Patsie Frawley, says there is a complete “discounting of disability in ideas and structures and processes that make up society and citizenship” because of ableism.
“So it's even stronger than discrimination, it's stronger than exclusion. It's actually that disability is discounted,” she explains.
“It's not even really seen sometimes, and by not being seen, it's not engaged with or valued either.
“I think it's one of the "isms", along with sexism, that sits at the heart of disability gender-based violence.”
If reading this has raised concerns for you, please call Blue Knot Counselling and Referral Service on 1800 421 468, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 for sexual, domestic and family violence related support.
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