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Tabú’s testimony on domestic violence against people with disability

Domestic Violence Against People with Disability Brussels, European Parliament, 31st of January 2017 Presentation from Tabú (Iceland) – Embla Guðrúnar Ágústsdóttir and Freyja Haraldsdóttir

My name is Embla and I don’t know if a have experienced domestic violence. I identify as a disabled lesbian and every single day I experience multiple discrimination based on my gender, disability and sexual orientation. I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager and worked a lot on discrimination and violence. My doctor once asked me if I had experienced sexual violence and I told her I didn’t know. She rephrased “Has someone touched you without your consent or inappropriately?“ Well yes of course that happens a lot to me but when I share that experience with others people usually don’t find it serious or wrong. I have no idea whether I have experienced domestic violence or not, the only thing I know is that discrimination and violence is imminent in every social interaction I participate in.

My name is Freyja Haraldsdóttir and I am a feminist disability activist. As I wake up every morning I can never be sure if I can go through my day without being violated against. Therefore, it is not until recently that I started to define my experience of powerlessness and ableist and sexist objectification as violence. That in itself was liberating but at the same time troubling because my experience of violence did not fit standard definitions of violence, e.g. I have not been abused by a family member or a lover but I have been abused by a nurse who came to my home, is that domestic violence? In a way the answer is no, the traditional definition would be violence in care, but still it takes place in my home where I should feel safe.

3 years ago we founded Tabú, a feminist disability activist space in Iceland, where we focus on intersectional approaches in tackling marginalization and violence. We did that as a result of realizing that disabled women were discriminated against in both disability and feminist movements and that our complex reality did not always fit the agenda of each movement.

When looking at traditional definitions of domestic violence it becomes apparent that it does neglect the complex situations of disabled women. It has been argued, e.g. that the definition of domestic violence does not capture the situation of disabled women. The nature of the intimacy can vary for disabled women since they also experience abuse by their support workers who might sometimes be spouses and partners. Even though that is not the case the relationship with the perpetrator is intimate for they are possibly assisting with bathing, dressing, toileting, eating, positioning in wheelchair or other highly personal tasks. Not to forget, that the numbers of people going in and out of disabled women’s home and having access to their bodies and domestic space, can be very high.

Also, the problem we face as disabled women, is that we are in a great risk of being institutionalized, especially women with learning disabilities. Many women are deemed to live in institutions, either a large scale or a smaller one like a group home, where they do usually not choose who they live with and who works for them. They also don’t have much control over what they do, how and when. Disabled women have few opportunities to set other people boundaries concerning our bodies and lives. This puts us in an even greater position of powerlessness and dependency in our own home. It is therefore °important to see domestic violence in context with other forms of violence disabled women encounter.

Domestic violence experienced by disabled women is a complex and intersectional issue that does not easily come with one definite solution. Disabled women are often not offered opportunities to define our own experience, identity and solutions which leads us to being the objects of other’s people’s definitions. In many ways it can therefore be said that the definition of domestic violence in the lives of disabled women and how it is responded to is highly political. The abuse disabled women are exposed to in their domestic spaces and by people they are intimate with is consequently even more dangerous, urgent to acknowledge and act for change.

Disabled women have pointed out in various literature that they nether feel belonging entirely to women’s organizations or disability organizations. Feminist non-disabled women have often been hesitant to change definitions of violence and broadening the gender-based approach because of fear that it will affect the safeguarding of women. Furthermore have disabled people’s organizations been hesitant to realize that gender is a factor for the fear of losing a holistic approach in disabled people’s rights activism.

It is clear that a new definition of domestic violence in itself will not solve the social situation of disabled women and end domestic violence against us. That does not change the fact that by redefining domestic violence legally and in policy can change, for the better, the practices of the police, legal system, social services and violence support networks. Changing the definition does not have to shadow the gender-based approach, it should enrich it. This should not have to exclude tackling of other forms of violence, e.g. institutional violence and hate crime. More so it could draw upon the multiple and concurrent forms of violence that should be beneficial to disabled women and service systems. It could deepen the understanding of which kind of violence affects or actuate other kinds of violence as well as offering a better ground to analyse how structures and cultures encourage and minimize abuse in the lives of disabled women.

In our work with disabled women in Tabú we have learned that domestic violence, as well as other forms of violence, is influenced largely by political and cultural factors. That is a reality we must face. When authorities, nationally and internationally, take active decision not to fund personal assistance for disabled people, they are deciding to increase institutionalization. When authorities decide to lower their standards of accessibility they are revealing that they are not ashamed of keeping us on the margins. When authorities decide to structure the social security and health care system in ways that discriminate on the grounds of people’s income they are making an informed decision to increase the likelihood of disabled people, especially women and children, losing their lives from the harm of domestic violence. This means that every single decision made by authorities, to act or not to act, will in one way or another increase or prevent violence against disabled people.

So, with this fact in mind, we will leave you with a simple question; are the decisions you make each day increasing or preventing violence against disabled people?


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