Speaking at the sixth quadrennial meeting of the Pacific Women’s Network Against Violence Against Women, two representatives of people with disabilities told of the immense difficulties all disabled people face, and how these difficulties were compounded for women and girls.
The five-day meeting heard from Sai Tawake of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community Regional Rights Resource Team (SPC RRRT) and Naomi Navoce of the Pacific Disability Forum.
Ms Tawake said while several Pacific countries are parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, implementing the articles of the treaty has been slow.
Of the Pacific countries that have signed the convention, only two have agreed to be bound by the convention – the Cook Islands (acceded 8 May 2009) and Vanuatu (ratified 23 October 2008).
Other countries, including Fiji, have signed the convention indicating their willingness to examine the treaty domestically and consider ratifying it. And while several Pacific countries have policies relating to people with disabilities, they often fail to specifically highlight issues that are unique to women and girls with disabilities.
“We need to go back to our governments and say to them ‘you have signed this, you have agreed in principle. You have got to do the work,’” Ms Tawake told the 45 participants at the meeting.
“We can’t do things overnight, but we have to progressively realise how we can include, persons and women and girls with disabilities in the area of legislation and policy planning, in programmes and in services.”
Women and girls with disabilities are all too often invisible when it comes to state assistance programmes, as well as in the drafting of national legislation relating to people with disabilities.
“How inclusive are those bills of women and girls with disabilities? Your women’s national plans – how inclusive are they?” asked Ms Tawake.
The meeting heard that people with disabilities are generally missed out when it came to social research. And while some studies have been carried out looking specifically at women and girls with disabilities, these have not been nearly enough to fully understand the scope of the problems they face.
One of the issues that remain to be thoroughly explored is the incidence of gender-based and sexual violence against women and girls with disabilities, which is a seriously under-reported statistic because of the double discrimination they faced being female and a person with a disability.
Ms Tawake said when women and girls with disabilities did report violence against they experienced, they faced a justice system that was insensitive and patronising. For example, police have been known to question their ability to collect evidence against a perpetrator if a woman with a visual impairment were to report a rape.
“For people with disabilities, when one of the senses is lost, all the other senses are forced to develop to compensate for the lost sense and you have to bank on those senses that are there to compensate for the lost ones,” said Ms Tawake.
It is from these acutely developed senses that a woman with a visual impairment can identify a perpetrator, although the criminal justice system seldom fails to recognize this.
A solution to this problem, Ms Tawake said, would be the training of police officers in sign language or in techniques of guiding a blind person and sensitising them to the issues faced by people with disabilities.
Naomi Navoce of the Pacific Disability Forum also raised similar issues saying women and girls with disabilities faced the highest risk of sexual violence because they were “easy targets” but were often reluctant to talk about the abuse.
Ms Navoce said cultural factors also played a big part in keeping the issue of violence against women and girls with disabilities under-reported.
“The fear is that if they report the case, if the perpetrator is a family member, a caregiver or someone in the community, maybe their family will put them in an institution and they will be locked away,” said Ms Navoce.
She said organisations for people with disabilities need to step up their efforts and work together to address the issue of violence against women and girls.
Ms Navoce added that attitudes of the general public to people with disabilities need to change and that state authorities need to increase their efforts to make public places more accessible, train more officials in sign language and build more disability-friendly mechanisms into government services.
The five-day Meeting on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls ends on Friday, 16 November with a range of resolutions to guide the work of the women’s network members for the next four years.