To be a woman, and to be different or disabled is to carry a heavier baggage of discrimination and violence. Yet, there are inspiring role models…
Two women, both widows, were beaten to death on April 18 in Ranila village, Rohtak district, Haryana. Their crime? They were suspected by Naresh Kumar, the nephew of one of the women, of having a lesbian relationship. According to newspaper reports, Naresh suspected the 34-year-old Suman of having an affair with his 35-year-old aunt, Shakuntala. So he dragged Suman out of her house, battered her with a stick until she fell dead and then went to his aunt's home and killed her as well.
What is it that fuels such terrible intolerance? Women are victims of violence, we know, but are women who make choices that are not the dominant ones even more vulnerable? Are women, who out of no choice of their own, disabled – physically or mentally – prone to a much greater degree of violence? And what about those who are born male but believe themselves to be female, the transgender? How do they survive in a society like ours that exhibits such high levels of intolerance for anyone who does not fit the dominant norm?
These were some of the issues addressed at a recent meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal, organized by CREA (www.creaworld.org) and intriguingly titled “Count Me In”. Women who do not fit dominant societal norms are counted out, eliminated from our consciousness, virtually rendered invisible. As a result, if they are victims of violence, no one cares or even acknowledges that this is also a reality in our gendered world.
One of the more fascinating areas that the conference explored was women and disability. Much is written and discussed about disability in general. Even the census now counts the disabled. But how are disabled women treated in a country where even able women have to struggle to be recognised as human beings with equal rights?
Anita Ghai is a striking looking woman in a wheel chair. She teaches psychology in a Delhi college. In a paper on ‘(Dis)ability and exclusion', Ms. Ghai touched on a central issue concerning disabled women that we rarely address: their sexuality. It is assumed that if a woman is confined to a wheel chair, or is impaired in other ways, she is de-sexed or asexual. Can she not have sexual feelings? Can she not be the victim of sexual violence?
Ms. Ghai recounted several stories that graphically portrayed the lives of disabled women. Meena, for instance, who was afflicted by polio as a child, describes how she hated going to school because everyone called her langri (cripple). When she wanted to go to the toilet, the teacher would refuse to let her go. By the time the teacher conceded, it was too late for Meena to make it from the classroom to the toilet because of her disability. Meena had to hear taunts from the other children and could not understand why the teacher did this.
Ms. Ghai recounts other, more horrific, stories. Of disabled girls being left with male relatives in the belief that they would be ‘safe'. Instead, the girls suffered sexual abuse but were unable to talk about it. She also writes about how while disabled men are able to get ‘normal' women as wives, disabled women have no such luck. If they get married at all, it is with tremendous difficulty that a match is arranged. One woman, for instance, decided that even if marriage was not possible, she wanted to adopt a child. But when she approached an adoption agency, she was told that she was ineligible.
The conference also brought together women who have overcome all kinds of disability and refuse to get cowed down. Amongst them were the arresting Jeeja Ghosh, Head, Advocacy and Disability Studies, Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy, Kolkata. If you listen carefully, you can understand every word that Jeeja speaks. She does so with great difficulty, but also with great passion. Speaking on the issue of disability and sexuality, Jeeja pointed out that “Women with visible physical impairments, who fail to measure up to the society's standards of a perfect and beautiful body, are marked as ‘undesirable' depriving them of their feminine identity. Thus they are socialised in a culture of asexuality.” She argues that this results in ‘internalised oppression' where the disabled woman herself begins to believe this, resulting in a lowered self-esteem.
Women with disabilities face greater violence not only than women in general but even compared to men with disability. Renu Addlakha of the Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi, described the many types of violence that disabled women face within the family home. These include physical violence and verbal abuse from the caregivers, lack of respect and a tendency to be treated like children even when they are adults, deliberate neglect — such as not feeding them in time, or giving them medication, confinement or being kept out of view of visitors to the home, drugs added to their food to keep them quiet and if they are angry, or assert themselves, labelling them as mentally unstable.
Meeting women like Jeeja, or the wonderful Kanchan Pamnani, a corporate lawyer who lost her sight gradually but has not lost her will or her determination to be independent and to fight for the rights of others like her, was humbling in more ways than one. Kanchan, for instance, has successfully fought for the sight impaired to have the right to open and operate bank accounts, something that was not permitted earlier. As a lawyer, she has looked at existing laws, those dealing with disability but also others — such as labour laws — to see if they address the issues of disability. For instance, she believes the Copyright Act needs to allow exemptions for the visually impaired who need to reprint texts in Braille, or convert them into audio books.
Being conscious of these issues forces us to accept that there are other dimensions to violence against women — mediated not just by caste, class or community but also by disability. Women who are different out of no choice of their own, as with the disabled, or because they have made a choice, as with lesbians, are also citizens of a democratic country, and therefore entitled to the rights and privileges accorded every other citizen. Our collective gaze towards them determines the extent to which we can be called a tolerant and civilised society.
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