by Matilda Branson
A girl is born into a very poor family living in a remote rural village. As she grows up, it becomes apparent to her parents that her limbs don’t function the way they should and is unable to walk. Rumours flit about the village that the girl’s mother may be cursed for giving birth to such a child. The child is kept at home, hidden away, a constant source of shame and embarrassment to the family. She does not go to school. She associates only with her family and is confined to the home. In her teens her father begins to sexually abuse her. As she reaches adulthood, she remains at home. Socially, culturally, economically, she is not seen as what a woman should be. She will never marry, bear children, or work. That is her lot in life.
It may seem pretty heavy, but the above scenario could be any one of the many case studies in a range of countries on gender and disability. Throughout the world, 650 million people – 10% of the world’s population – live with disabilities (Beijing Platform for Action, 1995). I’m not going to blab on about definitions of disability as that’d take forever – but yes, definitions vary, and yes, one shouldn’t necessarily make “disability” a huge umbrella term. But the point is that women with disabilities in general are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence; lack access to economic opportunities, health, and education; and experience conditions of poverty and forced medical interventions to control their fertility.
While mainstreaming gender into the disability sector is becoming more and more common, all too often you see that women with disabilities are perceived as asexual, passive beings, in need of constant care. What’s with that? Protective instincts? Surely we’ve moved beyond that though, in this age of rights, choice and autonomy. Quite a common issue the parents of young women with disabilities face, or refuse to face, is the fact that their daughter is a sexual being who may be keen to have boyfriends, have sex, get married and have children. This issue pops up in the shocked conservative Australian media from time to time about irresponsible parents choosing (imagine!) to allow their sons with disabilities to visit a brothel – yet these stories only seem to centre around boys with disabilities.
Regardless of whether we’re talking about developing or developed contexts, the real question is how do you, the people around you and wider society perceive gender and disability? Is there any way that you – in your school, uni, workplace, wherevs – can perhaps help to mainstream the issue a bit more? Educate people; transform some of the persisting attitudes into seeing women and people with disabilities as empowered, autonomous individuals who can make up their own minds about things. It just makes sense, right?
(photo CC-licensed, part of the Geograph Project)