Domestic violence and disabled women

Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic violence, and can face a range of additional barriers - from inaccessible shelters onwards, Clare Laxton reports

Clare Laxton, 12 July 2008

It is a well known fact among women's networks and feminists that two women die every week at the hands of their partner or former partner, and that one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

These statistics continue to shock (and unfortunately continue to be true) as campaigners, practitioners and women rally against the violence against women that still exists in our society. There are some women in the UK for whom domestic violence is an even bigger threat.

Disabled women are twice as likely as non-disabled women to experience domestic violence.

Shocking right?

According to recent ground-breaking research by Women's Aid, disabled women are also much more likely to experience a shortfall in domestic violence services. Lack of funding and resources for all domestic violence and disabled people's groups makes it even more difficult to tackle the reality of disabled women's experiences of domestic violence, but these researchers - and myself - believe that this should not hold us back from debating and talking about the issue.

Before I go any further, I just have to say that this article - and indeed the Women's Aid research - supports the social model of disability. The social model of disability proposes that a person is disabled by the disabling barriers of society and not the particular circumstances of their impairment. These barriers can arise from disabling attitudes, prejudice and exclusion. The social model directly challenges the negative views that society has of disabled people and their ability to participate fully in society.

Disabled women can also experience further barriers that don't have to be there when trying to leave and escape a violent relationship

The Women's Aid research concluded that the definition of domestic violence needed to be expanded slightly to encompass the violence that disabled women may experience. The definition that they worked form therefore included abuse and violence that women may experience at the hands of their carers, not just their partners. I also work from this expanded definition.

It is no surprise that disabled women have similar experiences with domestic violence than non-disabled women. They experience oppression and violence under the controlling power of a partner or carer, and they also experience the loss of self-worth and confidence that is literally battered out of a woman by a violent partner or carer. The issues that women who go through violent relationships have to deal with when thinking or trying to leave that cycle of abuse are universal also.

However, disabled women can also experience further barriers that don't have to be there when trying to leave and escape a violent relationship. Many domestic violence services and refuges are inaccessible - this is not a criticism of domestic violence service providers, as we all know how lack of funding and resources can prevent organisations from delivering the services to everybody that requires them. The physical, visual and audio accessibility or refuges is an issue that organisations like Women's Aid, Refuge and Eaves Housing for Women are concerned with and trying to improve.

Furthermore, many disabled women receive social care packages from their local authority which empowers them to live independently while choosing the care services that they require. When escaping a violent relationship - which could potentially involve moving local authority areas - disabled women would have to re-negotiate the amount of social care they receive with the new local authority. This can take months and months and could also result in a re-assessment which means women could receive less care than they were getting before - it all depends on the local authority and their funding.

Some women's organisations have asked the government to make 'emergency social care packages' available to women who are fleeing violent and abusive relationships, but so far they have not been forthcoming. The Family Welfare Association recently launched a report on the financial impact of domestic violence on women's lives. Though disabled women were not specifically included in this research, it is definitely an area that could be explored in further.

We need to include all women that experience abuse and violence in our feminist discourse otherwise we will alienate and not support those that need it

Many disability and disabled people's organisations (and other organisations like the police) refer to the 'Protection of Vulnerable Persons from Neglect and Abuse' policy when dealing with issues like disabled women and domestic violence. This is a policy that seeks to minimise abuse to service users in places like residential homes. I have two issues with the employment of this policy when thinking about domestic violence. Firstly, the policy doesn't treat domestic violence as a specific occurance or recognise the specificity of domestic violence, and secondly disabled women who experience domestic violence are not necessarily vulnerable people per se - they are women in a vulnerable situation just as non-disabled women are.

It seems to be that we - as feminists and campaigners - are trying to empower and enable people, decision makers and others to truly understand women's issues and how broad and wide ranging they are. I am imploring us also to understand the breadth of women's issues ourselves in realising that gender violence and abuse can affect all women - it is time we became a truly inclusive movement.

Not only do we feminists have a responsibility in this, but the rest of the country as well - a sea change in attitude is integral to the inclusion of all women in gender violence issues. As a country that currently donates more money to a donkey charity than Refuge, Women's Aid and Eaves Housing for Women combined - it seems to me that people place lots of importance on blame of a situation. A common view could be that "donkeys cant help it if their abused, but women can... especially disabled women who get loads of money off the state!"

We need to keep fighting against the misconceptions surrounding gender violence and abuse and include all women that experience abuse and violence in our feminist discourse otherwise we will alienate and not support those that need it.

To paraphrase Women's Aid, until all women and children are safe from gender violence.

About the author

Clare Laxton

Clare Laxton is a recent graduate in politics from Leeds University, where she wrote her dissertation on Islamic feminism in Iran. She became involved in women's campaigns at university and is a self-proclaimed radical feminist. She now works in London in policy and campaigns for a disabled people's charity

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