When the #metoo movement took off on Twitter, my timeline was full of tweets and articles from women across the world. I read articles where my first thoughts were, “I know the feeling” or “that happened to someone I know.” The stories showcased just how common and relatable instances of sexual assault are for so many women.
But like so many others, I failed to take into account the experiences of women with disabilities. More than 70 percent of women with disabilities experience sexual violence sometime in their lives. Although women without disabilities do face high rates of abuse as well, those who live with disabilities are more likely to experience it at the hands of caregivers, family members, and intimate partners and for longer periods of time. The numbers are too big for us to keep pretending that this doesn’t happen.
The women’s movements and the disabled movement have continuously dismissed the struggles women with disabilities face because both groups have pushed them to the margins. The #metoo campaign is the perfect example where a lot of the focus was placed on the experiences of women in Hollywood rather than women everywhere. Our feminism is not inclusive if we do not consider the uniqueness of the plight of women with disabilities and recognize the need to address the struggles they face. It’s hard to realize that we might subconsciously be prejudiced, but recognizing the need to change our agenda into a more inclusive one is a good start.
Women with disabilities are more likely to face sexual assault because they are often perceived to be weak, asexual, and unwanted. The stigmas that women with disabilities have to face when they report any abuse stem from these assumptions. I couldn’t believe that some people had these misconceptions, and how damaging they could be until I researched it.
I once read a report on research conducted in Lebanon that illustrated that if a woman with a disability reports a rape, she is rarely believed, because society sees her as undesirable in the way that women without disabilities are. In other words, because of her disability, she is considered ‘unrapeable.’ If that’s not outrageous, then I don’t know what is. They also believed that the rape was consensual because they assumed that women with disabilities do not receive any sexual affection, and thus are likely to consent to sex outside of marriage.
Although the research was conducted many years ago, I believe this disgusting assumption still exists worldwide today. Unfortunately, I’ve heard and read about many cases where a woman with a disability has been sexually assaulted, but people don’t believe her, or they blame her for what happened.
One case that shook me to my core and honestly left me crying for days was a Moroccan woman who was sexually assaulted on a public bus by a group of teenage boys. In a video that went viral on social media, the woman, who has a learning disability, is crying while the boys film the assault. Not a single person intervened to stop them. What was even more outrageous is that a lot of people took to social media to say that if the woman was unable to protect herself from unwanted attention then she should have dressed more appropriately or stayed home.
Victims of sexual assault have been shamed for far too long. They need to be taken seriously, and whether or not a person has a disability shouldn’t matter.
We have the responsibility to educate ourselves on the experiences of others. We need to recognize any bias we might unconsciously hold so that we can do better. Our feminist agenda cannot exclude women who are different from who we are, be it their race, ethnicity, religion, or body.