In a virtual panel, activists and researchers pointed out that with the pandemic and lockdown, women with disabilities have been especially disadvantaged.

A shot of a person's hand on the wheel of their wheelchair at the end of a corridor Image for representation. Marcus Aurelius/Pexels
news Disability Thursday, December 03, 2020 - 18:53

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed disadvantaged groups further into the margins. And women with disabilities, who are at the intersection of being disadvantaged due to their gender and disability both, have found themselves at the raw end of the deal. A virtual panel discussion organised as part of Prajnya’s 16-day campaign against gender violence saw researchers and activists highlight how the pandemic has resulted in increasing violence against women with disabilities, including deprivation and lack of access to essentials, healthcare, food security and social protection.

Even when the lockdown was announced on March 24, there was no sign language interpreter to ensure that those with disabilities are able to get the message right. “Because of this, some of the groups of deaf persons were just able to understand ‘don’t go out, you will die,’” pointed out Nidhi Goyal, from Mumbai-based disability and gender rights non-profit Rising Flame.

Apart from the general exclusion of persons with disabilities, women found themselves at a further disadvantage where gender intersected with disability.

Lack of access worsened by pandemic

Delhi-based Renu Adlakha, a researcher with the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, spoke about how even she – with her privileged position in the community – found the pandemic and the lockdown quite debilitating. “I have access to mobility, an independent source of income, live in a big city, in a community of middle class households. And yet, I felt so deprived during the pandemic. There was no public transport, and the local chemist shop did not have my medicines. I am not comfortable ordering online as I cannot see properly and was not able to put my bank details. So even though I had these services, I could not utilise them.”

A study done by Rising Flame in collaboration with Sightsavers using a focus group discussion approach with 92 people across urban and rural areas as well as small towns in 19 states, also found that women with disability were increasingly deprived by the pandemic.

Pointing out that women are often not owners of digital devices in their homes, Nidhi said, “There is a lot of shame associated with menstruation, and since many women with disabilities only live with men, they could not order sanitary pads online. In rural areas, even if sanitary pads were available at the local chemist store, the women were unable to go, and felt shame in asking caregivers.” She added that in cases where women in rural areas resorted to using cloth, it was very difficult to maintain menstrual hygiene given that women with disability would find it very difficult to ask caregivers to wash the menstrual cloth.

The panelists also pointed out that women with disabilities faced difficulties accessing healthcare and doctors, including for reproductive health issues, due to associated shame, neglect and lack of public transport. “We must also ask how many can survive if you take away their ongoing psychotherapy and physiotherapy – for instance, women with cerebral palsy?” Nidhi said.

Increasing violence

While even the United Nations recognised increasing domestic violence as a shadow pandemic that has arisen from the COVID-19 crisis, women with disabilities were at a greater disadvantage.

Reena Mohanty, from Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre (SMRC) in Odisha, revealed from a study done in three Indian states including Odisha and Gujarat that 80% of women with disabilities did not have access to public information from government sources, and media reporting was inaccessible. The study also recorded an increase in verbal abuse, economic violence and battering in 80%, 90% and 30% of the cases.

Nidhi pointed out that there wasn’t enough data to document violence against women with disabilities, but several anecdotes stood out. “There were cases where women who are deaf could not go out to buy groceries because the masks created a barrier to lip reading. No one is saying that one should take off masks and be unsafe… but there was a case where the father of a woman became abusive because of this, and accused her of being a burden.”

In other cases, Nidhi said, women with disabilities had reported essentials like food being withheld if they did not do housework. In terms of economic abuse, women with disabilities were affected because they could no longer go to banks or financial institutions, and relied on men in the family or husbands who would go with the women’s signatures, and thus have access to her earnings.

“In some cases, the husbands became violent because they could not handle the frustration of losing jobs and not having money, and started seeing the woman as a burden. In the same existing domestic violence cases where the woman had come to her natal home, the brothers have thrown her out after losing jobs too,” Nidhi revealed.

The Shanta Memorial study also found that 80% of the women surveyed had lost their wages – including 100% of women with disabilities involved in garment making and handicraft entrepreneurship. In Odisha, migrant women with 100% visual impairment were not allowed to return to their villages, the study found.

Nandini Ghosh of the Institute of Development Studies, said that in Chennai, many women were evicted by landlords because they lost their jobs and could not pay rent.

A bad situation made worse

The panelists said that it is not as though lack of accessibility and discrimination were not there earlier. However, the pandemic made a bad situation worse. “Despite the access that I have because of my position, I could have died in my apartment and no one would know. There was no concern or communication from my neighbourhood community. This, apart from the aloneness that people with disabilities anyway feel from living in the so-called non-disabled communities,” Renu said.

Nidhi also pointed out how gender dynamics deprive women with disabilities even further. “For instance, a child without disabilities will be prioritised over a child with one, and a male child with disability over a girl with disability. The intersection with gender is there everywhere.” If COVID-19 is a disaster, then the disaster management must include these nuances, she added.

Nandini pointed out that there was a need to create support systems and community mechanisms – not just for people with disabilities, but also for the elderly and sick.

More findings and resources on the effect of the pandemic on women with disabilities and their rights can be found here. The resource has been put together collaboratively by The Prajnya Trust and SMRC.

The panel also had a sign language interpreter displayed on screen to translate what was being said.

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