‘Disability may mean that you talk or walk differently. But that doesn’t mean you deserve to be mistreated or abused. It can be more difficult for you to stand up against it, but you must. Because violence is such that if you don’t stop the first, it will compound with the second, and they will join hands with the third.’
Team of counsellors, SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action)
My family never takes me out anywhere with them, and if someone comes home they lock me up in my room. I feel terrible. What do I do?
You are not alone. Many women with disabilities face this from their natal and affinal (in laws)families . There is a perception that domestic violence refers to only physical violence by husbands or intimate partners, but domestic violence also includes non-physical violence in the form of emotional abuse , as well as abuse faced by women from family members other than husbands or partners.
A research study conducted by the NGO SNEHA in 2011 in Mumbai shows that of almost 400 women with disabilities who were surveyed, 21% had experienced some form of violence – by in-laws in case of married women, and natal family in case of unmarried ones. Forms of violence reported include being isolated, rejected, insulted in front of family members or others, controlled for money, taunted for food or other care and basic necessities or threatened into complying with the family’s demands. Less than half had told someone about the abuse, and only 13% had sought help.
Speaking to someone about your situation is often the first step in addressing the problem. Say counsellors at SNEHA: ‘Is there someone at home who has a soft spot for you or one person who you can communicate with? You should confess your feelings of hurt and pain to them. Tell them that you may understand the reason behind their behaviour, but they do not understand how much this behaviour is troubling you. Tell that family member that you are not disabled by choice. Coax them to talk to the rest of the family on your behalf…They don’t hate you. They are simply facing acceptance issues or are uncomfortable with your disability, possibly because of their own thinking or the ignorant behaviour in society.
If there is no one at home you could talk to, think of a family friend, an uncle or an aunt you could approach. Tell them about your predicament. If talking to them face to face is not possible, send a letter, email, or anything else you can think of. Another option is to ask an NGO for help. Organisations working on violence will help you cope and will also counsel your family.
At the same time, you can try and accept your disability, and develop a positive outlook towards yourself. It is important for you to understand that you are not worthless or undesirable. There are many women who have faced abuse, and many who have stood against it. The first step is to work on your confidence, and stop over-sympathising with or pitying yourself. Don’t think that this is your destiny and you can’t do anything about it.’
My husband is constantly putting me down and telling me I’m worthless. My friend says this is domestic violence, but I don’t know. Is it?
Domestic violence is a criminal offence and can take different forms – from constant criticism, emotional and verbal insults, withholding money, preventing one from deciding how to spend one’s income, pressure to work or to stay at home, threats of abandonment or physical violence, to actual physical violence. Domestic violence is rarely a one-off occurrence, and generally involves a combination of several types of violence over a period of time. Domestic violence has been recognized internationally as a serious human rights violation and nationally as a punishable criminal offence; no woman – disabled or otherwise – deserves physical violence or emotional abuse under any circumstance.
Sometimes repeated abuse makes women forget that they are capable of taking the matter into their own hands to some extent. A wheelchair may prevent you from physically ‘walking out’, being visually impaired could make you feel more vulnerable in a hostile situation, or a mental illness could mean that your sudden instability could exaggerate your condition. But in every single case, you need to be prepared to accept that what is happening is wrong, and try to change it before it becomes life-threatening. Even though the prevalence of domestic violence is well established, it is sometimes still considered a ‘private’ matter between husband and wife – until it escalates to a death or near-death incident.
Sometimes women who face violence themselves feel that in some cases a beating is justified or that they ‘deserved it’ because of low self-esteem and social and cultural conditioning – even though reasons cited for spousal physical violence are often ridiculous like ‘too much salt in the food’ . In a research study by SNEHA on violence against marginalized women, 23% of the women with disabilities who were surveyed reported physical violence. But 43% of women with disabilities thought some physical violence against them was justified, higher than national data for non-disabled women. Women with disabilities may consider themselves more ‘deserving’ of violence because they have internalized social biases against disabled people and have lower levels of self-esteem.
My husband has become more and more violent over the years. What can I do?
Physical violence over time can lead to extremely debilitating effects, in some cases fatal, so reacting to it is essential, whether through confronting your husband about what is going on, or taking assistance from others. Say counsellors from SNEHA, ‘If in the case of physical violence talks and discussions don’t help, then you certainly have to bring in a third party – be it counselling from an organisation or intervention by a helpline. Men have been given some privileges by society which leads them to believe that they have power over a woman, specially their wife. This thinking needs to be worked on, and hence a third party is a must.
How much the situation will improve also depends on the nature of the partner. Was he violent from the beginning? Or has he acquired a disability which is making him insecure leading to this behaviour? Maybe the anger is stemming from the fact that he can’t accept his own condition. Even then he doesn’t have the right to beat you up or take his frustrations out on you. Counselling may help him accept his condition and reign in his anger. If he is beating you under the influence of alcohol, then he needs to go to a rehabilitation centre.
In cases of emotional abuse by the partner, you must speak up. Because what happens is that they think the woman should be treated like this only. Tell them that their behaviour is hurting you. Also, sometimes after the abuse, your partner may claim undying love for you. They may try and make up with gifts or something else. Don’t be fooled by that. If things don’t change, remember that you are protected under the Domestic Violence Act 2005 . Taking action against your husband is not against your culture. Please don’t get pressurised by comments like, “Oh he is a disabled and you are leaving him,” or “He accepted you in spite of your disability, and this is what you give in return!”
In spite of counselling, police action, if your partner doesn’t change, remember that you may have to consider moving out. Taking the decision to move out of a marriage can be a difficult one. Maybe you don’t have a place to go because your natal family refuses to support you. There areNGOs and shelter homes . Maybe you would like to stay independently with self-respect, in an abuse-free environment. We can put forth all the options, but finally it’s your life and you need to decide.’
My husband says that it’s my duty as a wife to have sex whenever he wants to. Is it true?
No. Your body is yours, and only you can decide what to do with it, regardless of your disability. After marriage, your body doesn’t suddenly become the property of your husband. You have every right to not have sex when you don’t feel like it. It’s not about your conjugal devotion or his conjugal rights; forced sex, even within a marriage , is called rape under the Domestic Violence Act 2005. It is a more insidious component of domestic violence, especially difficult for many married women to talk about.
Say counsellors from SNEHA, ‘In our research we have noted that 11% of disabled women facesexual violence by their intimate partner. Often, women allow this violence to go on for very long periods – sometimes years and decades. As a woman (disabled or nondisabled) you should know that without your consent he cannot do anything with you. Say no the first time itself he tries to force you. Sometimes women are too scared to say no. They think that the husband will beat them, or will leave them and go to another woman. So they think that, “Okay, we’ll tell it the next time”.’
Despite its sensitive nature, third party intervention or counselling may be necessary here – in many cases the root of the problem may be different expectations and understandings of what constitutes conjugal rights or a lack of communication between husband and wife. Say SNEHA counsellors, ‘You could share this with one of your family members or friends. When you do so, remember that you will have to portray the exact scenario and not downplay anything to make it more palatable. If you don’t tell them, they may not be able to guide you or help you otherwise.
Women have various reasons for saying no. We had a case where the husband and wife were both disabled. The wife was blind, and the husband was polio-affected. He cited a million reasons for not working, all revolving around his disability. When he found some work, he insisted that he stay close to his work, because he couldn’t travel. So almost since the time of marriage they stayed apart from each other – the husband in a separate house and the wife in a separate house. Then when he would visit her after every month or so, he would complain that she doesn’t allow him to have sex. The woman said that she feels embarrassed and not so comfortable with him. After all she hardly knew him, and it was difficult for her to straight plunge in sex. We counselled the man and told him that she needs to get comfortable with him. There are many other ways of preparing her and making her ready. You can’t directly come after months and demand sex.’
My husband wants to have sex in certain ways that I am not comfortable with. What should I do?
ust as you have the right to refuse sex, you do not have to do whatever is asked of you if you are not comfortable with it. But think through what it is that is making you uncomfortable: Is it painful for you? Is it because it is something that is socially considered ‘dirty’ – like anal or oral sex? Or is it that you enjoy it but cannot be honest about it because of religious or cultural taboos? Are there things that you think you would like to do but cannot because of social norms?
Say the team of counsellors at SNEHA, ‘You should try to talk about sex with your partner…what you like, what you don’t, and why with your partner. If there is no communication, or if you keep quiet or show false enthusiasm, the partner will be encouraged, and he may start thinking it is his right to force his desires on you. Sometimes, because of lack of (sex) education, women are ignorant about sex. We had a client, who shared that her husband would bite her each time they were having sex. She thought that intercourse was done that way. Since she knew nothing about sex and reproduction, she felt that the biting was necessary. We then gave her basic sex education and told her that whatever she was okay with was correct for her, and whatever she was not okay with was wrong for her. There are no standardised rights and wrongs in sex.
Women have a conflict going on in their minds. Their husband is forcing them for an act which they also enjoy, but want to refrain from because of the cultural and religious norms. If this is the case with you, then you have to solve this internal conflict. Only then you can decide if you are being forced into a sexual act which is degrading.’