How did you get raped when you cannot see? the cop asked
Blind and mentally challenged women at most risk of sexual assault, but their troubles don't end there, study finds
“We want to see if you cry. We want to know if you can scream.”
That was allegedly the reason given by five men who gang-raped a Gauteng deaf woman.
Her story was one of many told by disabled women in a report launched on Tuesday evening in Johannesburg.
The investigation into gender-based violence risk factors for women with disabilities was conducted by the Hlanganisa Institute for Development in Southern Africa (HIDSA) through the Joint Gender Fund.
The raped woman’s friend, a teacher at a school for the deaf in the province, relayed her horrific story.
She said the men had often seen her friend walking in the street and were angered that she would not respond to their catcalls. “They were like, this one will not even be able to tell anyone, and they went and raped her. Five men.”
The woman claimed her friend reported the incident to the police but they couldn’t understand her so a case was never opened. In SA, women with disabilities are twice as likely to become victims of sexual abuse, rape and intimate partner violence, and are also more psychologically vulnerable than non-disabled women, the report said.
The study found women with visual impairments and those with mental challenges were much more at risk than women with other forms of disabilities.
“The assumption made was that those with a visual impairment would not be able to identify perpetrators and those with mental challenges may not remember what could have happened,” according to report author Dr Sisa Ngabaza, lecturer at the department of women and gender studies at the University of the Western Cape.
Data was collected through focus groups and interviews with women living with different disabilities in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and the Western Cape in September 2018.
The study also found women with albinism were vulnerable to sexual abuse by males “who believe that sex with a person with albinism will bring them wealth. At the same time, women with disabilities are vulnerable to sexual abuse because some men may want to satisfy sexual fantasies by having sex with them,” Ngabaza said.
She said there were very few studies that explored gender-based violence among disabled women in SA, “but a study in Spain found that three in 10 women with disabilities were abused by their partner”.
A common feature that exposed these women to risk was isolation and neglect by family members.
In SA, stigma caused some families to keep these women hidden from their communities. Family shame and fear of community responses pressured families into such practices.
This “locking up” was generally considered a protective measure but women with disabilities saw this practice by families as abusive and potentially risky, since it attracted particularly male perpetrators who targeted the isolated and vulnerable women, Ngabaza said.
“Some respondents felt families had a tendency of using the grant for their own needs, excluding and neglecting them in the process.”
The study also found many women became financially dependent on men because it was especially hard for them to get jobs. A disabled KZN woman quoted in the report said many disabled women felt “grateful” if they found able-bodied partners. “It is like he is doing me a favour by falling for me. He gets credits for loving me in the first place and no one bothers him about abusing me.”
Other women spoke about their partners’ emotional abuse, when men would be intimate with them at night but would have nothing to do with them during the day.
The research found women with disabilities often found it difficult to report perpetrators because they were often people close to them, like family.
Women who did try to report perpetrators were often let down again by the justice system, the report claimed.
The women “felt that the biggest challenge with the police was that they did not take them seriously or give them the attention accorded people without disabilities”, Ngabaza said.
A blind woman from Johannesburg said: “When you go there to report the case ... they ask you: ‘How did you get raped when you cannot see? Who raped you? How will you be able to identify them? Do you understand?’
“These are the questions that they ask us – ‘How will you see him because you cannot see?’ ... Meanwhile, you are hurting inside. The pain is felt by you.”