Combating violence against women with disabilities: Our recommendations

During the Belgian national awareness raising conference “Combating violence against women: the role of women with disabilities” on 8 October 2021, the participants made the following demands to fight more effectively against violence against women and girls with disabilities. 

We believe that no decision concerning them should be taken without first letting women with disabilities speak up. This is fundamental if decisions are to be truly adequate to their realities and needs.

Furthermore, it is important to hear what they have to say directly, without a filter, without their parents or carers speaking for them.

General approach against discrimination, stereotypes and exclusion

  • To question and make more inclusive the current education system, in particular schools, sports associations, youth movements, etc., so that, from the earliest age, children with all kinds of abilities evolve together.
  • Deconstruct the notion of disability so that it is not seen as a shortcoming, but as a potential, a carrier of different experiences, practices and needs, and see it through the prism of a wider system of interdependence.
  • Promote positive images of people with disabilities, without infantilisation or victimisation – people with disabilities have particular skills and intelligences that enrich and complement mainstream ways of seeing.
  • Deconstruct the link between sexism and ableism so that women with disabilities are perceived and treated as full human beings and are no longer reduced to their disability.
  • Support more research in disability studies and intersectional gender/disability analysis; in particular, integrate disability in the Master’s degree in gender and create a research centre dedicated to disability studies.
  • Conduct awareness campaigns, including on social media, to promote inclusion and respect for diversity and combat prejudice and stereotypes.
  • Raise awareness and empower journalists and the media on the importance of making visible the diversity of women with disabilities, in particular by using non-stereotypical terms and images. Beware of reductive designations, as some deaf women for example do not recognise themselves under the disability label (“women with disabilities and/or deaf”).
  • Increase the active participation of women with disabilities in the media and the cultural sector, in all functions and at all decision-making levels.
  • Raise awareness and promote cultural productions by women with disabilities, for example by organising an art festival by women with disabilities for a diverse audience.
  • Bring women with disabilities out of the shadows and create media and cultural content that represents them as full human beings, not reduced to their disability, powerful and capable of action.
  • Identify and overcome all disabling aspects of society, especially by slowing down the functioning of society to make it more humane for all.
  • All sectors and levels of society must set an example of inclusion, using communication channels accessible to all and aiming at dialogue and mutual understanding.

Empowering women with disabilities 

  • Make every effort to ensure the right to independent living, including quality assistance.
  • Promote the participation of women with disabilities in the regular labour market and in adequately paid positions.
  • Use positive action to promote the employment of women with disabilities.
  • Make jobs accessible, especially in the care and education sectors.
  • Remunerating the work of women with disabilities, which until now has been done on a voluntary basis.
  • Create an autonomy allowance for all women with disabilities, regardless of their lifestyle, including living with a partner, to reduce their financial dependence.
  • Ensure full accessibility of all public spaces, including social networks, to enable women with disabilities to meet freely, build up various networks and affiliations and participate fully in the life of the city.
  • To make visible and enhance the capacity to act of women with disabilities in order to deconstruct stereotypes and encourage them to feel capable and legitimate to speak, act and defend their rights and interests.
  • Valuing the expertise of women with disabilities in all fields, not just disability.
  • Create opportunities for everyone to come out of silence and be heard, which implies full accessibility and shared means of communication.  At the same time, specific and spaces in chosen mixity are needed where women with disabilities can speak and be heard.
  • Create different workshops and playful tools to free the speech and co-construct the knowledge of women with disabilities.
  • In any communication addressed to women with disabilities, ensure that the message is short, accessible and focused on the concrete contribution of the information for women with disabilities. Encourage the use of platforms preferred by women with disabilities, for example Instagram.
  • Train women with disabilities to create their own content and media so that they can speak for themselves and show their creativity and opinions.
  • Supporting women with disabilities to form a French speaking association, like the Persephone association in Flanders.
  • Specifically support small associations of women with disabilities facing additional discrimination and oppression (e.g. racism, hetero/cis/monosexism, classism) so that they can bring their intersectional analysis to all sectors of society.

Develop preventive skills for women with disabilities

  • Integrate primary prevention education and education on relationships, emotional and sexual life (EVRAS) in all curricula and schools and from an early age, with particular attention to the notions of consent, personal limits and prevention and resistance strategies, and in particular for children and young people in need of assistance involving physical contact.
  • Fund feminist self-defence, its accessibility and promotion for all women and girls with disabilities. Increase the number of training courses everywhere and for everyone, including through local support from cities and municipalities, or even the creation of a certificate and an obligation to develop feminist self-defence in every sector (e.g. in special schools).
  • Organise such training for women with disabilities living in institutions. Special attention should be paid to places where women with disabilities are likely to live, such as shelters, psychiatric institutions and organisations working in the field of migration.
  • Organise, make visible and promote these trainings so that women with disabilities who are not connected to organisations in the disability sector have access to them. For promotion, information tools should be distributed to the places where women with disabilities go, for example general practitioners, ONE offices, municipalities, CPAS, mutual benefit societies, home care or family support services, religious organisations, their children’s schools. It should be noted that communication must be visible to all, as these actors are not necessarily aware of the disability of the women concerned. Some women are reluctant to talk to these bodies about their disability, for fear of being considered unfit as a parent and losing custody of their children.
  • Create accessible and non-infantilizing tools to explain violence, prevention strategies and where to find help. These tools should address all forms of violence, whether in relationships, in the family, in care relationships, in the public space, etc. They should be produced in different accessible formats and be accessible to all. They should be produced in a variety of accessible formats, including Easy-to-Read and Understand, Belgian French Sign Language, Braille and audio description.
  • Create accessible tools for victim support, including for non-professionals.
  • Encourage networking between the various services involved in preventing violence and caring for victims, including at the municipal level.

Making private spaces safer

  • Deconstruct the idea of the protective family, as this representation invisibilises and facilitates violence, and promote the message that the family space is subject to the law.
  • Establish consent as the basis for all interaction between caregivers and the cared for and give caregivers the means to let go of the organisation of the daily life of women and girls with disabilities.
  • Organise and promote, from an early age, training for the families and social environment of children with disabilities on respectful and empowering ways to help and support the child.
  • Create places where families of women with disabilities can talk and receive support so that they are not left alone with their difficulties.
  • Improve support for families of women with disabilities to reduce the stress of family carers.

Preventing violence in the disability sector 

  • Evaluate and reform specialised institutions and services (specialised education, non-mixed living, working and leisure facilities for people with disabilities) from top to bottom in order to avoid the isolation that encourages violence.
  • Establish consent as the basis for all interaction between professionals and beneficiaries (touching, movement, activities, etc.) and give professionals the means to let go of the organisation of the daily life of women and girls with disabilities.
  • Improve the working conditions of professionals in the disability sector to free up the time needed to operate on a consent basis.
  • Train professionals, including the medical profession, to combat ableism and develop respectful and empowering protocols, attitudes and practices.
  • Train professionals in specialised education, including specialised PMS centres, on issues of violence, primary prevention and care of victims, including available services and their accessibility.
  • Expand the range of in-service training for professionals in the disability sector with specific training on violence prevention and reduce overload so that professionals have time to attend such training.
  • Include in the initial training of professionals in the disability sector knowledge and know-how about violence, its prevention and support for victims.
  • To fight the neoliberal vision in the sector of adapted work companies in order to preserve and enlarge spaces of action for the people working there.
  • To create a network for the exchange of information and good practice in assistance, accessible to professionals and users.
  • Involve professions such as home helpers and carers in the prevention of violence, including providing them with the necessary information to act when they witness violence against women with disabilities.
  • Centralise and make accessible information on initiatives to combat violence in order to avoid wasting resources on reinventing the wheel.
  • Establish the obligation in each specific service for people with disabilities to set up a democratic process to elect a representative among the users who will identify the needs and wishes of women and communicate them to the organisation.
  • To open the way to and recognise the expertise of those concerned through peer education, peer counselling and awareness raising/training of professionals by women with disabilities (peer-to-pro).

Increase the accessibility of the anti-violence sector

  • Avoid the creation of specific support services for women with disabilities – they should be able to go to any anti-violence service and be well received and supported.
  • Create accessibility directories for these services so that women with disabilities do not have to do the research themselves and can access the services directly when needed.
  • Promote particularly accessible anti-violence services.
  • Create an accessibility label with different models according to the type of accessibility to facilitate communication and orientation.
  • Visibly displaying the accessibility information of the service on all communication materials and creating accessible communication materials (FALC, LSFB, audio description…).
  • Increase the accessibility of the domestic violence helpline and its chat room to 24/7.
  • Make all anti-violence services financially accessible because women with disabilities are more often in poverty and paying services are a major barrier for them.
  • Include and make visible women with disabilities in campaigns that fight against violence against women.
  • Train professionals, through initial and ongoing training, to deconstruct their false representations of disability and to welcome and communicate with women with disabilities in a correct manner, including addressing the woman concerned and not the assistant or interpreter; ideally, these skills should be recognised by a certificate.
  • Pave the way to the expertise of the women concerned through peer education, peer counselling and awareness raising/training of professionals by women with disabilities (peer-to-pro). It is important that these contributions of women with disabilities are valued and paid for.
  • Develop peer support in support services to accompany women with disabilities, including in discussion groups for victims of violence. In peer support, it is important to ensure the independence of the peer support workers from the host organisation so that they do not reproduce oppressive values, attitudes or practices. 
  • Introduce support services in institutions and other services of the disability sector to professionals and users.
  • Create spaces for meetings, exchange of experiences and practices and tools between professionals from the disability sector and the anti-violence sector.
  • Include disability organisations in the mailing lists for campaigns, posters, brochures etc. of the anti-violence services.
  • Disseminate information from the disability sector, for example about activities, in the anti-violence services.
  • Develop interpretation in Belgian-French sign language, train interpreters in correct and respectful translation in the context of violence, create a fund to finance interpretation in LSFB for deaf women victims of violence.
  • Strengthen and fund accessible transport and communication about anti-violence services, as well as the creation of local branches of anti-violence services in all regions, and particularly in rural areas, to overcome the isolation of women with disabilities.
  • Develop transformative work with perpetrators, not only through individualised therapeutic approaches. Services working with perpetrators must also take into account perpetrators with disabilities and become accessible and inclusive.

Making the police and justice system more accessible

  • Generalise the use of FALC in police and justice communications (websites, letters, etc.).
  • Develop specific initial and ongoing training for police officers and justice professionals to improve the treatment of women with disabilities who are victims of violence.
  • Identify and communicate on referral (and trained) persons on disability and violence in all police areas and judicial districts.
  • Inform, raise awareness and train lawyers on gender, disability and violence issues.
  • Extend the statute of limitations for the different forms of violence that affect women in a specific or disproportionate way in order to give women time to prepare for a complaint and legal proceedings.

Make the feminist movement more inclusive

  • Remain vigilant for absent women and increase efforts to enable their full participation.
  • Invite women with disabilities and their organisations to participate in networks, mobilisations etc. and respect their right to speak for themselves.
  • Organise activities, meetings, festivals etc. in an accessible way and be sensitive to the specific needs of women.
  • Improve networking with and between feminist associations, often small, that represent marginalised women (migrant, disabled, LGBTQI+…)
  • Develop a concrete and practical intersectional approach by working in other languages than French and Dutch and by collaborating with small associations of women with a migrant background that can act as cultural mediators.
  • Disseminate information from the disability sector in feminist networks.

Another important topic was also discussed but not pursued due to lack of time: 

Women with disabilities reported a lot of institutional and intrapersonal violence in health services. This topic should be explored in order to develop an awareness-raising and preventive training programme for (para)medical professionals. Other protective factors that should be strengthened are the principle of women’s self-determination in health matters, the financial accessibility of health services for women with disabilities, the consultation of experts in the field in the organisation of health services, and networking and support work with parents.