How can you decide for me?

For persons with disabilities, sex is the last thing on their mind as there are so many different things to worry about; their relationship with their close one, their talent nurturing, their acceptance in society as normal people, and many more…If a disabled person has 10 difficulties in their life, SEXUALITY WOULD BE THE TENTH!”  http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/tv-actor-sonal-vengurlekar-writes-an-open-letter-to-margarita-with-a-straws-director-shonali-bose/1/432008.html

This pervasive myth around disability and sexuality has multiple and rippling consequences. It leads to persons with disabilities(PWD) being considered as less than humans, which in turn shapes many behaviours like not considering their emotional wellbeing, psychological desires and so on, thus  reducing them to  their disability, and reducing their desires to simply grappling with the disabling affect of the medical condition and the inaccessible environment. The assumption of asexuality is so engrained that it becomes a part of the eco system of a PWD and gives birth to many more prejudices – to illustrate a few, they are unmarriageable, they will never want companionship or sex, having a family of their own cannot be their need, and they are undesirable and thus safe from abuse.

Recognising the extent of this myth around the world and its varied effect, the United Nations has dedicated various articles in the Convention on Rights of Persons With Disabilities (http://www.un.org/disabilities/default.asp?id=259)- article 6 which talks about girls and women with disabilities, article 16 which talks about safety from exploitation and abuse, article 23 which talks about the right to respect for the home and the family, and article 25 which is about right to health including emotional and psychological health. We will expound here a bit more on article 23 Right to respect for the home and the family which says: States Parties must take “effective and appropriate measures” in order to “eliminate discrimination against people with disabilities in all matters relating to marriage family, parenthood and relationships, on an equal basis with others.” The fact that this article had to be included in the CRPD is extremely telling of how society de-humanises PWD and the huge efforts the PWD have to invest in something which is an unconsidered everyday right for others.

“Most of the women mentioned that getting married was a big issue for them and they felt extremely discriminated when it came to relationships. Women who attended our workshop had a serious complaint with their families because they actively looked for partners for their siblings and not for them” shares Usha Kiran, Gender Disability Resource Center (GDRC) Telangana state coordinator. Arrange marriage being the dominant motif in India, families consider it their prime responsibility and an ardent wish to get their children “settled”. But when they leave the disabled daughters out of this wish, the daughters know that the first rejection that they face is at home, in their families, which perhaps carries similar societal prejudices. The families and friends don’t stop here, in rural Telangana, when women have expressed their wish to find a partner, they  have got responses like ’why do you want to get married, your husband will abuse you, not treat you well because of your disability, then what is the point?’

The premise is that women with disabilities(WWD) are less than full women because they presumably cannot comply with or discharge the gender roles prescribed by society that define a “good girl”, “good wife”, and “good daughter-in-law”. Because of course they are presumably “not perfect or good” it is understood and okay for others to discriminate against them, abuse them or disrespect them. Gender and disability plays out a compounded consequence in their lives. Thus, wwd become victims of the popular belief that they “cannot handle” marriage or relationship

“I don’t want to get her married because then I will have to take care of two disabled persons” said Kanta (named changed) from rural Gujarat. When the Gender Disability Resource Center (GDRC) Gujarat state coordinator Nita Panchal gently pointed out that the girl will be sent to the in-laws so the mother need not worry about two disabled people, Kanta replied “okay but I don’t think anyone will marry her! She can’t do any household chores- she is disabled. And no one of course wants a wife who does nothing at home.” Kanta explained. Belying her words was the picture of Heena (name changed) washing utensils and sweeping the floor dragging her polio affected leg behind.

The gender prescribed roles leaves women with disabilities not only disadvantaged against other nondisabled women and men but also disadvantaged as compared to men with disabilities. It is often seen that men with disabilities find it slightly easier to get disabled or nondisabled partners than women with disabilities. Hearing and speech impaired Geeta (name changed) from rural Gujarat experiences this because her husband with a similar disability is allowed by the in-laws to go around the city, enjoy holidays and participate in any NGO activities. But when she expresses similar wishes, she is told that being disabled this is not quite her necessity for her.

This discrimination is taken to another level when it comes to parenting. Women with disabilities are rejected for marriage because of the prejudice around disability and motherhood. If they are married, they are controlled and actively discouraged from having a baby because of the incorrect belief that disability will breed disability -which of course is unacceptable. To extend this, they believe that if at all she gives birth to a non disabled child then she will certainly not be able to raise her child, always assuming that it is the sole responsibility of the woman to do so. Telangana workshops brought out cases of many women being forced by their in-laws not to conceive.

In rural Gujarat, Noori (name changed) a blind girl from a religious minority was getting married and her father gave her some pills for “strength” to ensure smooth functioning of her married life. Being a “good daughter” and wanting to have a smooth intimate relation with her husband, she had the pills daily. Only after a year or so, her husband realised this, and on inspection he found out that her father had under false pretences given her birth control pills- with what right one wonders? To make matters worse, the husband soon contracted Tuberculosis and died before she could stop the pills and conceive, leaving her alone. Her in-laws then sent her back to her parents’ house because they didn’t want a “burden” and of course she didn’t even have a child for them to keep her, the former excuse a classic example of disability discrimination and the latter a classic one of gender discrimination.

The last we know Noori was back with her natal family and fed-up of the hostile behavior of her sisters-in-law and the residual food that they fed her. She was quite keen on finding a partner and getting married again, only if as an escape route to the abuse.

Reasons could be diverse -to find a partner, companionship, for sexual needs, for economic independence, for freedom from abuse and control- women with disabilities do want to have a relationship or get married.  The thing that makes them invisible is the societal belief around their abilities or lack thereof to fulfill what’s expected of them. It does make us wonder that in this day and age where women are constantly challenging and eroding roles assigned to them by self appointed social police, is the only way for a Woman With Disability to be accepted is to fit in these roles and perform within these confinements to prove their worth?

Written by:

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi Goyal is a disability and gender rights activist from Mumbai committed to change lives of women with disabilities through trainings, campaigns, research, and advocacy.  . Visually impaired herself, she is the co-author of www.sexualityanddisability.org. She also volunteers with local and international NGOs. You can follow her at @saysnidhigoyal

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