Widen this soul-searching
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It has been clear for many years now that the criminal justice system has almost completely failed when it comes to cases of sexual assault. There are a range of proposed solutions to resurrect the system — amending the law, proper implementation of the existing law, setting up fast track courts, sensitisation training for the police, castrating or hanging rapists. Unfortunately, in the vociferous debates on the subject, the dialogue has not once extended to sexual assault and sexual abuse of persons with disabilities. Most dialogues do not extend to persons with disabilities anyway, and this one is no different.
The fact is that there is rampant sexual abuse of people with disabilities, since they are viewed as soft targets. Globally, women with disabilities are between two and ten times more likely to be victims of sexual abuse compared to women without disabilities. According to a 1995 study in the United States, more than 90 per cent of people (both men and women) with developmental disabilities will experience some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives, while 49 per cent will experience 10 or more abusive incidents. Some other studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of deaf girls are sexually assaulted while 81 per cent of psychiatric inpatients have been physically or sexually abused.
There are at least 100 million people in India with disabilities. If even 10 per cent of them are
being sexually abused, this makes it 10 million people. This is reason enough for policymakers to sit up and ensure that any proposed solution specifically ensures that persons with disabilities can access justice in cases of sexual abuse and assault.
To propose any solution, the nature of the problem has to first be understood. First, because the disabled are viewed as asexual, they face a lack of access to information about sex, sexual abuse and their rights and legal recourse in the event of sexual abuse. As a result, a person with disability may not even be aware that she is being sexually abused. This is particularly the case for those with intellectual disabilities. The first step, therefore, is employing simple and effective methods to create awareness among persons with disabilities on these issues. Information must be made available in Braille and other accessible formats, and simplified in such a manner as to ensure that persons with intellectual disabilities can also understand it. It is also important to note that in many cases the sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, care givers and staff at homes and institutions. Given this, the state machinery must take steps to ensure that the information is made available to the person with disability directly and not through family members or care givers. Social workers or NGOs must be given regular access to persons with disabilities so that they can keep checking for instances of sexual abuse.