Women with disabilities: Why they are abused
By Arpee Lazaro
March is International Women’s Month and for the PWD community, women have a special place in everyone’s hearts. This year’s theme is all about making change work for women. Thus it is this writer’s sentiments that part of empowering women in the Philippines is to give attention to the women with disabilities and how “empowered” have they truly become through the years.
In 2000, 189 countries signed and endorsed the Millennium Development Goals as drafted by the United Nations. One of the goals stated that by 2015, there should be gender equality and women empowerment. While this has remained a goal as in many Middle Eastern countries, Filipino women have managed to make some headway. However, for WWD, empowerment has affected just a selected few. Education and jobs have remained so elusive for them. This can be seen in the number of employed WWDs who have had a good education; in 2016 the number is at a dismal 3 percent of all women who were born with disabilities.
Women with disabilities are often victimized twice over; cultural and institutional barriers make women and girls vulnerable to abuse because of their gender, and even more vulnerable to abuse because of their disability. In a 2011 study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was revealed that 25 percent of female rape victims are women with some form of disability, most often intellectual disabilities. This is a grim picture that only accentuates our inability, or most likely the unwillingness, to empower women in general. The Filipino male ego has been reinforced with the belief that they are superior to their female counterparts in many ways in that even as persons with disabilities, the women and girls are often the target of sex fiends and criminals who decide to inflict harm because the perpetrators believe they can get away with it.
It all begins with education, or the lack of it. Some parents, who have daughters disabled since birth, have been known to be indifferent to their daughters’ situation. The lack of education makes the situation worse for those living in poor provincial areas. In May 2017, a woman in her early 20s was rescued by social workers after a concerned citizen reported that the woman had been held in a cage and was chained there since as far back as the neighbors could remember. After she was rescued and brought to the DSWD shelter, it was found out that the woman was suffering from schizophrenia. Her behavior was misunderstood by her own parents and she was placed in cage since she was 12 until the day she was rescued, all 11 years being treated like an animal by the very family who was supposed to protect her. The parents believed that their daughter could have been possessed by evil spirits and that there was no other choice but to keep her chained. At the DSWD, the woman was given proper treatment and medication and in late 2017 was able to get a job as a janitor and has been earning a living, supporting herself.
Studies have shown various reasons why WWD are three times more likely to be raped or sexually abused. The more common scenarios include:
1. The victims think the abuse or violence is normal. Because they grow in an environment of indifference, the girls with disabilities are most likely attacked by their own caregivers and family members who socialize with them on a daily basis. The PWDs are not taught the difference between appropriate and abusive sexual behavior.
2. WWDs are not usually taken seriously. This is a problem common in the provinces where the patriarchs easily dismisses complaints from the PWD family members as idle gossip. If a PWD is sexually assaulted by a family or community member who is not disabled, chances are the PWD will dismissed as lying or making trouble.
3. WWD usually have problems communicating. Especially those who were denied basic education, the woman with disabilities will most likely have limited vocabulary and will not have access to an interpreter.
4. Local law enforcement have no training in dealing with issues surrounding WWD. So when a PWD tries to report an abuse, the police or barangay officials will automatically send them back to their abusers without much thought. Many provincial law enforcers would not see a woman in a wheelchair as someone “sexual” and would most likely disbelieve a report of rape or sexual assault, especially when the alleged attacker is someone known to be in good standing with the community, with a wife and children.
In the Philippines, being disabled is highly misunderstood. In 2010, the statistics for persons with disabilities is at 1.7 percent of the population. In the most recent survey of the WHO, it is now known that one out of every five persons in the world suffers from some form of disability. In a 2015 study commissioned by the WHO, it has been revealed that women have a life expectancy of 72.50 years compared to the males at 65.68. The WHO experts believe that Filipinos will spend between six to eight years of their life living with a disability. This is like saying that all of us are on our way to disability whether we like it or not.
If we want to achieve gender equality and women empowerment, we must first institute reforms that will change the mindset of the next generation of citizens. We must teach the next generation that it is not OK to bully or maltreat those who have diminished mental capacity to fend for themselves. We are no longer in a society of the survival of the fittest but in a benevolent society where gender equality and observance of the rights of persons with disabilities is part of the recipe for success and economic growth.
Arpee Lazaro does reputation management, brand development, social advocacy and political campaigns.