LONDON (WOMENSENEWS)--International rights activists here recently pressed for the needs of women and children with disabilities to be addressed in international efforts to curb sexual violence in conflict zones.
"Disabled individuals are at least three times as likely to be experiencing sexual violence in conflict situations or in non-conflict situations," said Judith Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights at the U.S. State Department, adding that baseline levels of violence get greater during conflict. "The data has been relatively minimal because in many areas, I think we can say in the U.S. and Great Britain and countries around the world, the issue of sexual violence in the area of disability is only a newly emerging discussion."
Heumann participated in a panel discussion that was one of 175 public events at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which was hosted here by U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, the special envoy for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, from June 10 to 13. The meeting drew a mix of activists, politicians, survivors, faith leaders and other officials. With representatives from more than 100 countries, summit organizers said it was the largest gathering on the issue.
While delegates worked on tackling the impunity around sexual violence in conflict zones through an international protocol released during the event and changing global attitudes to these crimes, Heumann's panel highlighted the various ways in which women with disabilities may be at greater risk of violence, including gender-based violence, during pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict times.
"Conflict in violence, whether it's sexual gender-based violence or intimate-partner violence, is of course a significant cause of impairments [disabilities] in and of itself," said Maria Kett, assistant director of the Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre in London, during the panel. "Persons with disabilities may have been born with disabilities or they may have acquired them."
Panelists called for such remedies as including women with disabilities in post-conflict peace-building processes, more research, sensitivity training for judges, social workers, police and others in the community and improved support and services.
"If you have reduced mobility, it makes it that much harder to run when everyone else is fleeing from the village, you may have less chance to run away. If you have a hearing impairment you are less able to hear if someone is coming behind you to attack you," said Kett.
However, she added, that's not always the main factor. When this group is overlooked the risks can be compounded. "Even when there are initiatives in place to protect men and women, girls and boys, from sexual and gender-based violence, oftentimes certain groups are excluded. That may not be deliberate. But if you don't put your message across and make information accessible in all formats, languages, if you don't make sure your venues for your meetings are accessible, if you don't reach out to disabled communities themselves, then you won't necessarily be including those people."
Rates of violence may be 4-to-10 times higher among those with disabilities than their non-disabled peers, found an April report from the Women's Refugee Commission. Women, children and older persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and violence, said the report, and women and girls were more likely to report sexual violence, with those with intellectual and mental disabilities among the most at risk.
Factors that can make women and girls with disabilities more vulnerable to sexual violence, according to the report, include stigma and double discrimination for being a woman and having a disability, isolation, poverty, service providers questioning their credibility, a lack of knowledge about gender-based violence and insufficient support and services.
The State Department's Heumann said women with new disabilities may be especially isolated. "One of issues has been that many women's groups have not really been including disabled women in the work that they've been doing," she said. "You have women not from the disability community who are acquiring disabilities, where the primary groups they would go to, maybe women's groups, aren't sensitive to the disability issue." As a result, Heumann said, such women can be left "kind of out there on their own."
This exclusion can also happen in post-conflict situations. A 2008 Women's Refugee Commission report showed that female refugees with disabilities often found themselves in refugee camps that were ill-equipped to meet their needs, with problems with the camps' physical layout and infrastructure. A different report, prepared by the Violence Against Women with Disabilities Working Group in 2012, said that justice and post-conflict reconciliation activities rarely include women with disabilities.
Heumann said the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, is a step in the right direction to addressing some of these issues. The international treaty, she said, has been ratified by more than 145 countries, though not the United States.
Lee Webster, head of policy and influencing at Womankind Worldwide, an international women's rights charity based in London, said right now is an especially significant time to discuss next steps, with the deadline for the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, a set of international commitments to improve global living standards, coming next year.
"Violence against women and girls was a gaping hole in the MDGs," Webster said during the panel. "What comes next and what is in the post-2015 framework in terms of overall goals, targets and indicators is vitally important because what's there is what gets measured and what gets measured is what gets funded. So we need to make sure that persons with disabilities, and particularly violence against disabled women and violence against women and girls, is firmly in that framework so we do have a framework for action moving forward."