Confronting the Sexual Abuse of Women with Disabilities

The document covers the origins of our knowledge concerning the sexual abuse of women with disabilities, discusses data on women with disabilities and the men who abuse them, and explores the advocacy efforts of women with disabilities and their allies.

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VAWnet Summary:

Confronting the Sexual Abuse of Women with Disabilities by R. Amy Elman (January 2005).

In Brief:

& Women with disabilities are often overlooked in research on and activism to end the sexual abuse of women. This omission is particularly troubling considering that the limited research to-date consistently reveals that men sexually abuse women with disabilities at a similar or higher rate than women without disabilities. This report offers a critical summary of studies pertaining to the sexual abuse of women with disabilities. Further, it draws on that summary and critique to recommend that professionals and activists remedy what is at present a deeply disturbing oversight by committing to the provision of services and outreach, as well as the undertaking of research activities, tailored to address the needs and experiences of this population.

& The existing research on the sexual abuse of women with disabilities suffers from inconsistencies in methods, definitions, timeframes, and populations. As a result, it is difficult if not impossible to reach nuanced conclusions based on empirical research findings. Indeed, the disparities in findings are often so great that we cannot be certain we are even discussing the same problem. Moreover, the overwhelmingly narrow focus on measuring the incidence of abuse (often defined inconsistently), is itself a concern as it usually precludes considering the details of women's experiences. This oversight may unintentionally perpetuate the very invisibility and silence that women with disabilities strive to overcome. Clearly, the combination of inconsistencies and narrowness compromises one's ability to design, implement, and evaluate responsive prevention programs developed to the specific needs of women with disabilities.

& In addition to more carefully designed research, this report calls for increasing the visibility of women with disabilities in public information campaigns. This may be one of the only effective ways to counter the social cynicism women with disabilities experience in coming forward to reveal their experiences of sexual abuse. Internet campaigns designed to raise awareness of the issue can also serve as an important organizing tool for sexually abused women with the added benefit of rescinding the security and sense of entitlement that perpetrators often gain through their use (abuse) of that very medium. Furthermore, on a legal and administrative level, indifference toward sexually abused women with disabilities could be confronted by revisiting both the Hate Crimes Statistics Act and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and revising them to forcefully address the particular needs of these victims.

& Women with disabilities are not asexual. Researchers, activists, and service providers who fail to integrate issues of gender and disability for these women do them a great disservice.

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