Experiences of gender-based violence among disabled women: A qualitative systematic review and meta-synthesis

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About the project

Women with disabilities encounter a high risk of violence, especially in Canada. Canadians with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violent victimization as non-disabled people and face a wider range of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. For instance, abuse can include withholding equipment, aids and medication, and leaving women in physically uncomfortable positions for extended periods. Gender-based violence (GBV), which encompasses any form of violence that occurs because of one’s gender, gender expression or gender identity, is a global endemic among women with disabilities. Yet, the lack of research attention focused on GBV and disability has contributed to the invisibility of the victimization of women with disabilities.

This project aimed to provide a new and more comprehensive understanding of the lived experiences of GBV among disabled women to promote best practices by strengthening services and building community capacity. We conducted a qualitative meta-synthesis to examine and synthesize qualitative data exploring the experiences of GBV among disabled women. This qualitative meta-synthesis was guided by the following questions:

  1. How do disabled women experience GBV and what are their formal and informal needs?
  2. How do disabled women access services and resources related to GBV?
  3. What are the best practices and prevailing barriers for organizations that support disabled women experiencing GBV from the perspectives of disabled women? Additional details related to the study protocol are available in open-access format

Key findings

  • Despite its historical and cross-cultural prevalence, gender-based violence remains hidden behind a wall of silence. For disabled women, silence is an ongoing problem. Silence increases the difficulty in identifying gender-based violence among disabled women and discourages women from seeking support and disclosing violence. Disabled women report that when they ask for help, there’s no one to help them.
  • While women with disabilities experience similar forms of violence as non-disabled women, some situations involve specific abuse targeting their disabilities. For instance, abusive partners have used deafness and blindness to humiliate their partners. Personal care providers can also perpetrate abuse that specifically targets women with disabilities. Since these providers have intimate access and physical proximity to disabled women, boundaries become blurred, leading to unwanted or ambiguous sexual contact. Disabled women also experience institutional violence when navigating the healthcare system. Women are subjected to insidious or direct forms of silencing, humiliation and invasion by healthcare providers.
  • Many women describe how living with a disability significantly contributes to violence against them. Women report that being disabled aggravated the abuse they endured and limited their ability to escape or receive effective service responses. For instance, dependency and reliance on perpetrators shaped disabled women’s exposure to violence, prolonging a pattern of domestic abuse. Often, the perpetrator is a partner who participates in the woman’s ongoing care, making it difficult for women to seek help. The supposedly safe environment of the woman’s family home is frequently a site of violence, and many who experience violence from their partners are pushed to self-harm, including suicide.
  • Despite widespread portrayals of disabled women as vulnerable and lacking agency, their personal strengths and social connectedness were highlighted across studies. Many women shared stories about resistance, courageously standing up for themselves and ending violent relationships. Disabled women who experience gender-based violence demonstrate a commitment to defend, support and advocate for others. They are essential members of families, social networks and communities.

Policy implications

  • Disabled women have described service providers as missing opportunities to provide assistance and ensure their safety from abuse. Service providers can revictimize women, and women may internalize a lack of appropriate response as their fault. Service providers must approach gender-based violence by taking an active stance, such as identifying violence and referring women to appropriate services. A proactive approach is highly valued by disabled women; it includes identifying violence and recognizing women’s specific disabilities. Failure to acknowledge a woman’s specific disability can lead to inadequate and inefficient treatment.
  • Gender-based violence services must be accessible to disabled women. Disabled women report difficulty finding accessible services, as they sometimes encounter architectural and environmental barriers preventing them from accessing services, such as a lack of proper assistive technology, policies against service animals and restrictions on children remaining in the facility.

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Ami Goulden, Principal investigator, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador: agoulden@mun.ca

Stephanie Baird, Co-investigator, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, King’s University College at Western University: sbaird7@uwo.ca

Laura Pacheco, Co-investigator, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador: lpacheco@mun.ca

Lisa Faye, Collaborator, Executive Director, St. John’s Status of Women Council: lisa@sjwomenscentre.ca

Deborah Norris , Collaborator, Professor, Department of Family Studies and Gerontology, Mount Saint Vincent University: deborah.norris@msvu.ca

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