Gang-raped and left without a voice: Living with disability in India

When she was 13, "Razia" (not her real name), who has an intellectual disability and difficulties in speaking, was raped by her brother's tutor.

Story highlights

  • India saw legal reforms after a 2012 gang rape that shocked the country
  • Few police or courts are trained to help people with disabilities report a crime

New Delhi (CNN)In 2014, a 23-year-old woman with cerebral palsy was allegedly gang-raped and thrown from the rooftop in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

"The suspects, who are from an upper-class family, have not only managed to evade prosecution, but they continue to threaten the survivor's family," said Nidhi Goyal, a disability rights activist and consultant to the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch, a global nonprofit human rights organization.
"The first community response to this case was, 'why should we support this unproductive woman and ruin the life of this productive man?' " she said.
    In a Human Rights Watch report published Monday, the 2014 gang rape is cited as just one example highlighting the additional challenges women and girls with disabilities face in India. If they survive sexual violence, they face barriers when trying to pursue justice, according to the report.
    "She's mental. Why should I pay attention to her?" This was the response Susmita, 26, also from West Bengal, got from the police when she wanted to report her sedation and rape by four male neighbors in February 2014. Susmita, whose name was changed for the report, has a form of schizophrenia, according to Human Rights Watch.
    After the 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in the capital, New Delhi, reforms were introduced in India to strengthen laws on sexual violence. These included increasing the length of prison sentences, the introduction of the death penalty for some sex crimes and setting up a dedicated fund for safety initiatives.
    Amendments made to criminal law in 2013 also included provisions to safeguard the rights of women and girls with disabilities and facilitate their participation in proceedings.
    But the latest report finds that gaps in the implementation of these reforms are exacerbated for women with disabilities who face multiple issues, such as a lack of mobility or an inability to communicate.

    An 'invisible' group

    Women with disabilities are made invisible by society, activists like Amba Salelkar believe, preventing larger reforms on sexual violence from reaching this community. Salelkar is the director of programs at Equals, Centre for Promotion of Social Justice.
    The process of "invisibilization" starts early. It is fostered by a lack of inclusive education in schools and restricted access to public spaces due to inaccessible infrastructure, Salelkar said. The stigma of having a child with disability also keeps people with disabilities segregated, she added.
    When it comes to reporting incidents of sexual violence, women with disabilities are not seen as sexual beings, and assaults on them are more likely to get buried, Goyal believes.
    "She is considered asexual, unattractive or on the other extreme: desperate and only wanting sex." said Goyal, who has a visual impairment herself. "If you invisibilize them and their sexuality, why would you acknowledge the sexual violence that happens to them?"
    When the stories are reported to the police, the response is very often, "How will she know?" questioning the accounts of survivors, Salelka said.
    Maneka, 15, whose name was also changed for the report, has intellectual disabilities and reported being raped by two men in October 2015. In the police report, her age was inaccurately recorded as over 18, and her disability was omitted altogether, the report states. This resulted in her being excluded from child protection laws as well as the 2013 amendments that protect the rights of women with disabilities.

    Gaps in implementation

    More than five years after Pandey's rape, legal reforms aimed at helping victims of sexual assault have been slow to materialize on the ground.
    Activists like Jayshree Bajoria, a consultant with Human Rights Watch, say survivors continue to encounter hostile police personnel unwilling to register complaints and still experience use of "two-finger" tests -- a practice done to note the presence or absence of the hymen and the size and apparent laxity of the vagina -- by medical professionals during examinations for evidence collection, despite critiques of its medical validity.
    Monday's report records how the situation is significantly worse for disabled women.
    The comprehensive report notes that justice is difficult at every stage of the judicial process, from reporting incidents of violence to the police to getting medical care and navigating the court system. For instance, the report finds that even in cases of "extreme violence," survivors with disabilities had difficulties in securing compensation with no set standards for the amount.
    The 23-year old woman with cerebral palsy, gang-raped by three neighbors in the 2014 case, had applied for compensation to cover her medical expenses after the incident. However, the report found that she has still not received any amount from the state, said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

    'Reasonable accommodations'

    Disability rights activists stress the need for "reasonable accommodations" outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These accommodations require that justice systems make the appropriate changes to ensure that a person with a disability is able to "enjoy or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms."
    Yet few police officers or courts in India have the training required to handle cases involving people with disabilities. Such training would cover ensuring that information regarding the disability of the survivor is recorded in the police report. As a result of the lack of this type of training, there are many instances of inaccurate or incomplete information on police reports, and survivors are unable to claim certain benefits or compensation to which they are entitled.
    Furthermore, police rarely provide the victims with information on legal aid or services.
    Sanjay Gunjyal, inspector general of police from the northern state of Uttarakhand, believes that while training is a first step, it is not enough.
    "Officers should be sensitized to the emotional and psychological needs of the victim and how to work with women and girls with disabilities," he told Human Rights Watch.
    Sanjay Gunjyal, inspector general of police from Uttarakhand state, said training is the first step, but it is not enough.
    "You don't want people to be denied access to justice, because what they needed was unreasonable or too expensive," Salelkar said. "If somebody was raped in Ooty (in southern India) and if the nearest sign language interpreter is in Coimbatore (more than 85 kilometers away), it doesn't matter if it's going to cost you to have to get that."
    One of the solutions suggested in the report is more training for the officials who handle cases of sexual assault, such as ensuring access to "special educators" who can identify disability accurately and facilitate communication.
    An example given in the report is the case of Razia, a 13-year-old girl from Uttarakhand with an intellectual disability, who found it hard to talk about her rape by her brother's tutor. Her social worker came up with the idea of using a doll, which Razia then used to give police a clear account of what had happened.
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    Whether these changes will materialize and how long they will take are questions that activists will continue to ask.
    "Far more women are coming out despite the victim blaming, despite the stigma that is associated with it. And that is no small change. That is significant," Bajoria said. "But the state must ensure that the survivors have access to their rights and entitlements. And that's a challenge, because the monitoring and evaluation needs to happen systemically. How long will it take?"