Sexual rights: off-limits for Indian women with disabilities?

Women with disabilities in India face routine violence, coercion and control over their sexual choices that would not be tolerated by non-disabled women.

Nidhi Goyal
2 June 2017

 off-limits for disabled Indian women?

Participants and volunteers in a sexuality and disability programme in Bandra Reclamation, Mumbai. Photo: Nolina Minj.

At 15, when I was going blind, my father’s friend, a doctor, suggested that my father hide my eye disorder from the world because in three years’ time I wouldn’t have lost too much of my sight and he could then, without disclosure, marry me off when I was legal. Once the world knew that a girl was blind, no one would have her; as if marriage is the ultimate goal, as if consent and choice cease to exist if you are a disabled woman. My father didn’t give into the pressure but not all girls or women with disabilities are as fortunate as I am.

That was in 2001. Since then we have made some progress. In 2007, India signed the UN convention on rights of persons with disabilities; in 2016, it passed the ‘rights of persons with disabilities bill’ which is a relatively progressive act including some new gender specific clauses; and women with disabilities are now recognised and accepted, however reluctantly, by both the disability and women’s rights movements – whereas before they seemed to slip through the cracks.

But there has sadly not been a significant change in social attitudes. There are aspects of the life of a woman with a disability, particularly around sexuality and sexual rights, which are brushed under the carpet, considered superfluous issues at best or complete non-issues at worst.

Women with disabilities are typically seen as either asexual – or hypersexual.

Women with disabilities are typically seen as either asexual – or hypersexual. Both of these polar opposite assumptions reinforce discrimination and increase vulnerability. They reflect the discomfort of treating women with disabilities as “normal” women with desires and needs that go beyond political, public and infrastructural inclusion.

It may seem ridiculous but such sexual myths are so strong around disability that a court which acquitted a blind man from sexual abuse charges reportedly said “a blind person...cannot put his penis between the thighs of any person” – while, after a girl with hearing and speech impairment was allegedly raped by police, an officer reportedly said “deaf girls” are “more sexually active”, suggesting that she must have “started this.”

A disabled woman’s sexuality is hamstrung by the popular idea that she is not woman enough because of her supposed imperfections, intolerable in a society which focuses on the perfection of the female body, and the presumed ability of a non-disabled woman to take on the feminine roles of caring, nurturing, of being a “good wife” and a “good mother”.

Patriarchy + ableism

A woman’s sexuality in India has long been the subject of controversy and control with judgments made on her clothes, on her occupying public space at night, on her romantic and sexual history and on whether she smokes or drinks, a sign of western influence.

Since women with disabilities stand at the intersection of two identities, they face multiple power structures: that of patriarchy and ableism. As a result, not only men but non-disabled women as well exercise control on the sexuality of women with disabilities.

Take, for example, the strong reaction of a non-disabled woman TV actor to the 2014 film Margarita with a Straw (which portrays the sexual life and desires of a woman with cerebral palsy). She said: “For a disabled person, sex is the last thing on their mind as there are so many different things to worry about; their relationship with their close one, their talent nurturing, their acceptance in society as normal people… BUT SEX IS THE LAST THING ON THEIR MIND, I guarantee!”

Being touched inappropriately while seeking help to cross the street is an everyday experience.

This is not an isolated viewpoint and it is no wonder that girls and women with disabilities internalise stigmatised images of the body, sexuality and desirability. Having been told that ‘beggars cannot be choosers’, women with disabilities lower their expectations when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships and marriage.

This has multiple consequences. As a result of low self-esteem, too many women with disabilities feel forced to accept matrimonial partners that they would otherwise deem inappropriate for themselves. They believe they will not have opportunities to engage in sexual relationships which makes them vulnerable to false promises and abusers.

At the sexuality and disability workshops that I conduct for women with disabilities on behalf of the Mumbai based non-profit organisation Point of View, stories of men with and without disabilities taking sexual advantage of women with disabilities are very common.

These women either end up suppressing their sexuality or accepting inappropriate sexual or relationship advances. When I ask young, visually-impaired girls whether they have faced sexual harassment, they remain silent. When pressed, they say that being touched inappropriately while seeking help to cross the street is an everyday experience.

Ripple effects

Internalising prejudice has ripple effects. Disabled women too often allow their families to take charge, submit to choices made for them, and hesitate in raising their voices against sexual abuse. There have been cases where blind women have been given contraceptive pills under the guise of vitamin pills in order to prevent them from procreating; and women with multiple disabilities have been forcibly sterilised after incidents of rape.

A report from the Women with Disabilities (WwDs) India Network said there have been cases of women with intellectual disabilities forced into sterilisation, hysterectomies and abortions “to enable menstrual management, and sexual exploitation.” It referenced one case in particular – which went to the supreme court in 2009 – of an attempt to force “a girl with intellectual disability, who had been raped in a State run shelter” to terminate her pregnancy.

This kind of interference with a woman’s body or sexual choices would be totally unacceptable in the case of a non-disabled woman – but the same actions do not cause as much public outrage when it comes to disabled women. The only aspect of sexual rights which attracts some social concern is the right to be free from violence. However, the response is too often to curb our independence in the name of protecting us – a situation faced by nondisabled women too.

The focus of the male-dominated disability rights movement is access, education, and employment.

Sometimes the violence is so shocking that it draws outrage from other movements. Indeed, violence was the issue that first made the women’s rights movement sit up and take note of the rights of women with disabilities after 1994 when the state ordered forced hysterectomies on girls in mental health institutions. But ongoing abuses against women with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities, in institutions in India, suggest that action to end this is not high enough on the agenda.

The focus of the male-dominated disability rights movement is still access, education, and employment. It has not expanded to include access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and it does not include access to comprehensive sexual education.

Sexuality is not on the mainstream disability agenda and the language of positive sexuality, choice and pleasure is a dream yet to be realised. For girls and women with disabilities, sexuality is still about the triple Cs: controversy, control and coercion, but not really the Cs of choice and consent.

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