The annual ‘16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence’ will start from November 25, 2023, which is also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This international campaign will continue till December 10, the Human Rights Day.

It is time once again to reflect on what has changed and what has not about domestic violence against women. That domestic violence against women remains all pervasive is well known. It continues to occur in all socioeconomic and cultural population groups, as women everywhere are socialized to accept, tolerate, and rationalize such violence. It has become a ‘routine matter’ so to speak, and yet such normalization must be resisted. No form of violence can be ignored as ‘routine’ – it must remain under the scanner and engage our attention for a resolution.

In this larger context, what about the concerns of women with disabilities? December 3 will be marked as the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This day should serve as a reminder that we need to talk louder about the contradictory experiences of women with disabilities – of being situated squarely within the domestic, while being denied the domestic; of always having their worth weighed in terms of ableist and gendered ideas about productive and reproductive labour.

Disabled women face varied forms of violence within the domestic familial space that has been historically framed as protective. What is the in-depth narrative behind this contradiction? This article examines this question on the basis of data collected for a British Academy funded research titled Surviving Violence: Everyday Resilience and Gender Justice in Rural-Urban India (2020-22). The study was helmed by Queen Mary University of London and University of Oxford in collaboration with Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and Chaitanya Policy Consultancy, Chennai. The names of the study respondents quoted in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

This photograph is another example of fine-art photography. In a world- turned-upside-down frame, the photograph shows a close-up shot of a medium-sized lock hanging from an iron grilled door. The shot has been taken at an angle and in subdued daylight. The lock and the grilled door are visible in sharp contrast to the blurred images in the background. Beyond the door, someone, possibly a girl or a young woman, can be seen standing at a grilled window and looking outside. Her hands are placed on the grill. The person’s features cannot be made out because of the blurring effect. The unrelenting grey scale of the photograph and the reversed frame provides a telling narrative of confinement, which is another form of domestic violence. Photo credit: Debalina

Natal family violence

For many disabled girls, natal family violence starts during adolescence not just because they are girls but also because they are considered unfit for both productive and reproductive labour. Shonali, who is deaf, was beaten by her mother and aunt frequently for failing to follow the instructions for household tasks. For disabled women and girls, the forms of natal family violence are diverse and the levels high. The family members of Jhuma, a young woman with cerebral palsy and a wheelchair user, stopped her therapy as she grew older. This affected her posture, and she now suffers from chronic urinary infection which has pushed her into depression. She was also denied access to psychiatric treatment, and her contact with the NGO she attended was severed.

Such instances of domestic violence within the natal home are common for many women with disabilities in their adulthood. A strong cycle of association exists between psychosocial disabilities and domestic violence. Malini was beaten up regularly by her brothers after her parents died when she was very young. Forced into an unwanted marriage and subjected to further violence in the marital family, she now lives with a psychosocial disability in a mental health institution. When Sima’s psychosocial disability was diagnosed, her mother was reluctant to buy medicines for her, which aggravated her condition. Later, Sima’s mother deliberately put her on a long-distance train and slipped away. Sima landed up in Kolkata, nearly 2,000 km away from home.

Disabled women face emotional violence because of the perception that they will never get married. Asha, living with locomotor disability, was always made to understand that she would not be married off like her other sisters. “I was always compared to the boys of the family as I would never leave home. No one asked me what I wanted,” she shares.

For single women with disabilities who live with their natal family, domestic violence is also evident in the denial of property rights. Rimpa, a woman with locomotor disability, requested her father for a plot of land to apply for Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana funds to build a house. This set off a process of struggle, with her father reluctant to give her any land and her brothers defaming her character to establish her ineligibility to claim family land. Her appeals to the Panchayat also did not yield any results. She still lives in her natal home, with her mother in a house that belonged to her father, who is no more. She is abused daily by her brothers, but is unable to move out. At the same time, she finds it increasingly difficult to remain there. Instances of being pushed out of domestic spaces and denial of property rights are common for disabled women in India, but often not talked about.

This fine-art black and white photograph consists of three consecutive vertical frames. The first shows a closed window of a house from the outside, with plants and creepers framing the window from three sides. To the left of the window, the door to the house is partially visible. The next frame shows a woman with her back to the camera walking in a narrow alleyway with her head tilted slightly down. She is wearing ‘salwar-kameez’, has a ‘dupatta’ on her left shoulder, a woman’s bag on the same side, and an umbrella in her right hand. She is wearing a pair of slippers. Her hair is tied up in a high bun. Only the left side of the alleyway, lined up with houses and buildings, is visible in the frame. The pathway is strewn with leaves and pebbles. The third frame shows a close-up of the wall of a run-down house from the outside. This wall is also visible in the previous frame, immediately to the left of the woman described in the frame. A wooden framework seems to be holding up the wall made up of asbestos and other material. One section of the wall has a metallic screen that is wearing off and torn in places. The only relief in the frame is provided by a plant visible in the top left corner, with its branches and leaves partially covering the torn screen. Photo credit: Debalina

Violence in marital family spaces

According to the Census of India conducted in 2011, fewer disabled women (43.1%) were married in comparison to disabled men (49.8%) and non-disabled women (49.9%). Disabled women often find themselves shunted into marriages for which their families must give a hefty dowry. Chandrani was married off by her parents to a man with no steady source of income. She faces regular verbal abuse and taunts from her husband and all her in-laws. “Sometimes I’m also beaten up by my husband and my mother-in-law for not doing housework properly,” she says.

The normalization of violence in all domestic spaces affects disabled women more intensely as they fight aspersions of incapacity. Arshia, a deaf young woman, was married within her kin network with hefty amounts of dowry in cash and kind. She was often locked up for days inside a room by her in-laws and husband and made to starve. When she became pregnant, she was sent back to her natal family, and her husband married again. When Arshia’s parents went to find out why this had happened, not only were they beaten up but a complaint of attempt to murder was also lodged against them at the local police station. Arshia’s child has been adopted by her parents and she is not even able to claim her own child. Complaints filed with the relevant State Commission for Women and the Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities have not yielded any results.

These incidents of domestic violence and sheer disregard of rights is an everyday occurrence for disabled women. Many women with psychosocial disabilities are dumped in mental health institutions. For example, Sita’s family is reluctant to take her back home. This emotional and psychological violence in the form of being abandoned by one’s family itself becomes another form of domestic violence. Further, many disabled women remain completely silent on the question of sexual violence. Yet, as disability and women’s rights activists reveal, disabled girls with high support needs, who are fully dependent on their caregivers, are vulnerable to sexual abuse within families and in domestic spaces. There have been numerous instances where families have hushed up pregnancies and sexual abuse of blind and deaf women.

Accessing the law

Disabled women who are survivors of domestic violence find it difficult to access legal support in varied ways. There is very little information available in accessible formats about what constitutes domestic violence and mechanisms like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), 2005 for seeking help. While the PWDVA as a law seems to be all comprehensive in its inclusion of women, it leaves out disabled women implicitly because of the way the provisions of the law are structured, and by the ways in which the law has been interpreted and implemented across the country. For instance, the location of the Protection Officers at the district level hinders access for disabled women. Again, the lack of accessible shelters and support services deter disabled women from seeking support.

The exclusions are reinforced by the absence of special provisions for disabled women, and due to a lack of sensitivity to the fact that disabled women are more likely to be subjected to violence. The lack of appropriate systems and processes poses problems for disabled women in reporting domestic violence, as their access to the outside world and people outside their family is often available only through the very persons subjecting them to violence.

Accessing the institutional provisions of the PWDVA is more difficult for disabled women as neither the Protection Officers nor the courts have mechanisms that enable disabled women to file complaints against the natal and marital families in cases of domestic violence. Though the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 inserted clauses into the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 stipulating the modalities of collecting data from disabled women, these disability-sensitive services are yet to become active within the police stations, hospitals, and social support agencies. Negative social attitudes about their dependence on others prevent disabled women from lodging complaints against family and caregivers, as they are more are likely to be counselled to return to the people on whom they are dependent and who are also the perpetrators of violence.

The problems of independent mobility, economic dependence on families, concerns over losing their only shelter, and low self-confidence all work together to impair disabled women’s chances of lodging complaints of domestic violence. The final hurdle to lodging a domestic violence complaint is the cultural ethos, which prizes the family over all other relationships. Social attitudes and internalized oppression thus affect access to justice. 

The stark reality

The data from the field illustrates that despite similarities with the domestic violence faced by other women, there is something specific to the type of domestic violence that disabled women face. It is a violence framed by the realities of their disability. Cultural attitudes determine the ways in which violence is perpetrated against women with disabilities, and accepted, and the ways in which access to justice is affected.

For women with disabilities, the emotional violence stemming from not being able to work as hard or as much as other women is often coupled with sexual violence. While disabled women who work are subjected to economic violence through appropriation of their income, disabled women staying at home face economic violence in the form of denial of clothes, essential provisions, and pocket money. Therefore, even seeking access to law is not seen as a viable option. The coping mechanisms for most disabled women are often silence and endurance, and for those who are married, the last resort may be walking out of the marital home.

The stark reality is that the legal frameworks, both for women and disabled people, have not been able to recognize adequately and address the specificities of the domestic violence faced by disabled women.

Photo credits: Debalina, independent filmmaker, cinematographer and photographer passionate about gender, sexuality and environment. All the photographs have been sourced from the website of the Surviving Violence study. They are an outcome of collaborative work between the researchers, photographers and respondents, and are an attempt to represent the respondents’ perspectives of disability, domestic violence, and coping with the violence.