Put a system in place - enable disabled girls, women to report sexual assault, demand activists

That girls and women in India are vulnerable to sexual violence is something few would dispute. Every so often, an incident is reported that moves us out of this state of almost numb acceptance, and shakes us to our core.

The recent case in Chennai where a 11-year-old deaf child was gang raped for a period of seven months by 17 men in the safe confines of a gated community is one such incident. Drugged and threatened at knife point, the child kept quiet about her ordeal until she broke down and confided in her sister.

The accused are now in custody and the girl and her family are receiving counselling. There is a good chance of the justice system in this case ensuring that the 17 men are put away for good.

What is also encouraging is the wave of protests held across India in support of the Chennai child. In states like Maharashtra, Assam and New Delhi, various groups, of disabled and non-disabled people, have gathered to voice their rage and sorrow over what the 11-year-old went through.

So, is this incident a repeat of the Nirbhaya moment? The 2010 gang rape of a young student in a Delhi bus brought the sexual violence against Indian women under the global spotlight. The abuse of the deaf teenager in Chennai has highlighted how doubly vulnerable women with disabilities are.

Yes, I feel this situation is similar to the Nirbhaya case in many ways. I still remember that incident because I was there in Delhi the time. The whole nation came forward to support her. Here too, the Deaf community is gathering in many places across India to support the Deaf Girl. We have to make the Hearing community understand how the disabled are most vulnerable to rape and abuse. There are so many cases like this happening around India, especially with deaf children and women because they cannot speak and hear - Pradeep More, Deaf Leader, Maharashtra

Invisibalising disabled girls & women

A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year underlined not just the high risk of sexual violence faced by women with disabilities, but the struggle they face in accessing justice.

People with disabilities are more vulnerable at all time. Every day one hears or reads about incidents of violence against girls with disabilities - an these must be the ones that come out. Even in the Muzzafarpur shelter home, there was a girl with speech and hearing disability. What was comforting was that they arranged for a sign language interpreter who was able to communicate with her and therefore express her side of the story – Rati Misra, Advisor, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP)

For one, they are not seen as sexual beings and reports of assaults tend to get buried. The other problem is the lack of facilities on the ground to enable them to seek justice, be it a sign language interpreter or a counsellor.

Barriers to justice

Post Nirbhaya, the Indian government has taken important steps to reform the justice system to include women with disabilities, but this needs to be implemented on the ground.

The law needs to definitely be made more accessible for girls and women with disabilities to facilitate them to interact with the police and the judiciary. There is need for procedural and age-appropriate accommodations, and other support depending on their disabilities. This could include access to sign-language interpreters, presence of someone to facilitate communication through institutional support , use of simple language, and the options to file reports in braille etc. - Rati Misra, Advisor, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP)

More and more girls and women in India are coming out to report sexual assault, braving social stigma. The question is, when will the justice system start to support them by giving them access to what they are entitled to?

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