Whose streets? Our streets

by Philippa Willitts // 1 December 2012, 19:51

Tags: disability, domestic abuse, domestic violence, Reclaim the Night, sexual violence, sexual violence against women, Sheffield

495429594_68dad8838d_z.jpg When the Yorkshire Ripper was murdering women, the police responded by telling women not to go out at night, "effectively putting them under curfew".

The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist group called for women to march in cities across the UK on the night of 12th November 1977 against rape and for a woman's right to walk without fear at night, they advertised this in national newsletters and publicised it to women's groups. Hundreds of women took back their cities on that night, marching with flaming torches through centres and back streets alike. They made the point that women should be able to walk anywhere and that they should not be blamed or restricted because of men's violence.
In 1996 I was involved in organising a Reclaim the Night march in Sheffield, so when I heard there was going to be another one this year, I was really happy to accept the request to speak at the rally.

I wasn't up to marching, but was amazed at the sheer number of women who arrived at the Students' Union for the rally - around 200. Maureen Storey from VIDA spoke first, then I was up next, followed by Keeley Roe from Sheffield Rape and Sexual Abuse Counselling Service and three women from Hollaback! Sheffield.

I had prepared well for my speech. I'd written it, timed it, practised it, edited it, run it by a friend, and practised it some more. What I wasn't at all prepared for was that, by about three sentences in, I really wanted to cry. I got all the way through it, holding back tears, but I was taken aback by how emotional I felt. These are things I write about a lot, but speaking it out loud, in front of a group of amazing women who were really listening, was overwhelming. My speech is below, and you can download a leaflet to accompany it at http://www.philippawrites.co.uk/rtn-pdf. Please feel free to reproduce and distribute that.

When I first became disabled, there were some things that I expected and some I did not. One thing I had not known was that the fact of becoming disabled would double my risk of being sexually assaulted and experiencing domestic abuse.

Disabled women are twice as likely to be assaulted or raped as non-disabled women, and 97% of women with severe mental health problems who are homeless experience violence. 97%!

The problems don't end there. Many disabled women then have difficulty reporting.

This may be because people don't understand how they communicate. It may be that they have been given limited sex education - because people believe that disabled people never have sex - so they don't have the language to describe what has happened to them.

It might be that they are not believed - this is especially the case with women and girls with learning disabilities and mental health problems. I know of a woman with learning disabilities who, when she reported abuse, was told she just hadn't understood what had happened. She had.

I have even heard of disabled women being asked, "Who would want to have sex with YOU?" when they reported abuse.

When I reported an assault, the specialist police officer told me that because I had developed mental health problems, the court would consider me an unreliable witness, so I didn't take it any further.

Getting support after an assault can be really difficult. Many organisations' premises are not accessible, materials are not produced in accessible formats, and workers aren't trained to understand the specific issues that disabled women are often confronted with, and the particular needs we may have.

As we know is the case with all women, disabled women are most at risk at home. But it is not just partners and family members who can be a threat - caregivers and personal assistants are in a prime position to be exploitative and abusive.

When a violent partner is also a woman's carer, the potential for abuse increases massively.

They might:

  • withhold care
  • withhold medication or food
  • remove your mobility aids to reduce your independence
  • refuse to help you use the bathroom, which can obviously be very humiliating.

Inaccessible services prevent women from getting help. If they need their partner to help them to use the phone, their options are automatically limited. When trying to find support, disabled women are even told they should be grateful that somebody wants them.

Disabled women also face extra barriers to leaving. If they live in a specially adapted house, they may be very wary of leaving it - accessible accommodation is far too rare. If they have a care package in place - and these can take months or even years to set up - or if they have personal assistants they trust - they may feel limited to staying in the same area. And many disabled women are scared of being institutionalised, or having their children taken away, if they leave their home.

A Women's Aid survey found that only three out of 133 domestic abuse organisations had disabled workers in post.

Clearly this situation needs drastic action. Disabled women are more likely to need domestic abuse and sexual violence services, but are much less likely to be able to access them. There are additional factors that individuals and services need to take into account, and they are complex so they need some serious thought. An important part of this is awareness training on the extra issues that disabled women face, only a handful of which I have touched on tonight.

Women's organisations need to actively reach out to disabled women and use their expertise to improve. And disability organisations need to start focusing on disabled women's experiences of violence and abuse.

Never assume you know what disabled women need, and don't be tempted to install a ramp and feel you've done all the work that needs doing. Listen to disabled women, believe us, and ask what we need you to do.

Years of bad experiences have taught many disabled people that they won't be helped if they approach an individual or a service for support. It is time to change this, and show all women that steps are being taken so that we can all access help when we need it. That saving the wheelchair user from her violent husband isn't "too expensive"; that providing the Deaf woman with counselling after years of abuse isn't "somebody else's responsibility"; and that the learning disabled woman being pressured into sex isn't ignored because nobody knows how to approach the subject with her.

Each of us can make a difference, and we each have a responsibility to do so. For all women.

[The image is a photograph of Fargate, in Sheffield, at night. It was taken by wheelz24 and is used under a Creative Commons Licence]

Comments From You

Alex_T // Posted 03 December 2012 at 23:56

Very moving, thank you. My sister has severve mental disabilities and although her carers are fabulous, I can't help but worry about her all the damn time. Like you say, she doesn't have the language to tell us if something has happened, or even to give or withold consent. Worry, worry...

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