UNITED NATIONS, New York – Fifteen per cent of the world’s population lives with a disability, and nearly 200 million are between the ages of 10 and 24. Yet they are often invisible in government statistics.
Girls and boys with disabilities are largely excluded from education and health services, discriminated against in their communities and trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence.
Worldwide, girls bear the brunt of these violations. A global study from UNFPA reveals that girls and young women with disabilities face up to 10 times more gender-based violence than those without disabilities. Girls with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.
Here are five more things you need to know about disability, gender and discrimination:
1. Gendered discrimination begins early.
Discrimination against girls and young women with disabilities occurs almost immediately. Female infants born with disabilities are more likely to die through ‘mercy killings’ than male infants with disabilities, and may never be legally registered, which cuts them off from publicly provided health care, education and social services. It also renders them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Girls with disabilities are less likely to receive food in the home and are more likely to be excluded from family activities and interactions. They are less likely to receive health care or assistive devices than boys with disabilities, and are routinely denied access to education and vocational training, making them susceptible to social exclusion and poverty as adults. Worldwide, women with disabilities have a 19.6 per cent employment rate, compared with 52.8 per cent for men with disabilities and 29.9 per cent for women without disabilities. Illiteracy may also play a role in heightening their risk of gender-based violence.
2. Girls and young women with disabilities are at the greatest risk of sexual violence.
Young people with disabilities, especially girls, are far more vulnerable to violence than their peers without disabilities.
Children with disabilities are almost four times more likely to become victims of violence than children without disabilities, and nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk. In a study by the African Child Policy Forum of violence against children with disabilities, nearly every young person interviewed had been sexually abused at least once – and most more than once. Another study conducted in Australia found that as many as 62 per cent of women with disabilities under the age of 50 had experienced violence since the age of 15, and women with disabilities had experienced sexual violence at three times the rate of those without disabilities.
Children who are deaf, blind, autistic, or living with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities are most vulnerable to violence. Studies have found that these children are five times more likely to be subjected to abuse than others, and are far more susceptible to bullying.
3. Violence against girls with disabilities can take many forms.
Children with disabilities are exposed to a broad range of violence perpetrated by parents, peers, educators, service providers and others. Violence can take many forms, including bullying in school, physical discipline at the hands of caregivers, the forced sterilization of girls, or violence in the guise of treatment, such as electric shock ‘aversion therapy’ to control behaviour. In some cases, children are deliberately harmed to inflict disabilities that make them more sympathetic as beggars in the street.
A study of children with disabilities in Uganda found that schools were the main places where they experienced violence, often at the hands of school staff and their peers without disabilities. Yet other studies have found that girls and young women with disabilities are at greater risk of sexual violence when out of school. Neighbours and family members who know they are alone can use the opportunity to sexually abuse them, with little risk of being caught or punished.
Disability also increases young people’s risk of being trafficked for sexual or other forced labour – something often attributed to lack of social inclusion and stigma. In too many places, young people with disabilities are regarded as ‘undesirable,’ and may even be subjected to trafficking by their own families.