Forgotten Sisters - A Report on Violence against Women with Disabilities: An Overview of Its Nature, Scope, Causes and Consequences

September 5, 2012

Stephanie Ortoleva and Hope Lewis have just released a new 228-page report: “Forgotten Sisters - A Report on Violence against Women with Disabilities:  An Overview of Its Nature, Scope, Causes and Consequences” (August 21, 2012), Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 104-2012.  The complete report and an abstract can be downloaded on the Social Science Research Network website at: and on the Women Enabled website at under “news.”


A Global Issue


The problem of violence against women is global and, of course, includes violence against women with disabilities. See, paragraph 232(p) of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and paragraph 69(j) of the “Beijing + 5” document on "Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action."  Violence against women is pervasive; it shows no respect for class, disability, race, ethnicity, or religion. 


With more than 1 billion persons with disabilities worldwide, at least half, if not more, of them women or girls (according to recent World Bank and World Health Organization reports, the pervasive international and transnational issue of gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities demands attention.  In response to increasing activism, advocacy, legislation, and judicial recognition, the international community and UN mechanisms should take additional note as well.


According to our report:


The Working Group recognizes the need to ensure that women and girls with disabilities are included as full participants in data-gathering, analysis, and proposed solutions as the mandates of Ms. Rashida Manjoo (the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences) and Mr. Shuaib Chalklen (the Special Rapporteur on Disability) move forward.  Additionally, the Working Group calls on international organizations, especially those focused on women’s rights such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women (which will consider as its priority thematic issue violence against women at its 57th session in March 2013) and UN Women, and the international community, governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to join us in the effort to highlight these critical issues.  Because women with disabilities make up a significant part of the world’s population, principles of fairness and equality require that the world engage in a vigorous discussion on how to end violence against them.  Violence against women and girls with disabilities takes many forms.  Women with disabilities experience violence in armed conflict situations, violence in the home from partners, other family members or caregivers, as well as inadequate or non-existent access to justice when they report such violations.  They may be denied treatment for physical harms or literally and figuratively shut out from domestic violence shelters, police stations, courthouses, or doctors’ offices.  The violence and isolation they experience may be exacerbated by poverty, employment or housing discrimination and social exclusion.

The forms of violence to which women with disabilities are subjected are varied; physical, psychological, sexual or financial violence, neglect, entrapment, degradation, and forced sterilization and psychiatric treatment.  Women with disabilities are twice or three times as likely to experience domestic and other forms of gender-based and sexual violence as non-disabled women, and are likely to experience abuse over a longer period and to suffer more severe injuries as a result of the violence.  Their abuser may also be their caregiver, someone that the individual is reliant on for personal care or mobility and they are not privy to the same information available to non-disabled women.  Sexual and gender-based violence contributes to the incidence of disability among women and girls. 


An Intersectionality Approach to Women with Disabilities


Although violence against women with disabilities occurs among every class, racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural category, such social and class distinctions make a difference when analyzing specific responses to violence as well as its nature, causes, and consequences in context. 


Our Report argues that effective responses will require multilayered local as well as global approaches:


The 2011 Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women focused on the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that contribute to and exacerbate violence against women, noting that factors such as ability, age, access to resources, race/ethnicity, language, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity and class can exacerbate the violence women experience.  Although women with disabilities experience many of the same forms of violence all women experience, when gender and disability intersect, violence takes on unique forms, has unique causes, and results in unique consequences.  Further, women with disabilities who are also people of color or members of minority or indigenous peoples, or who are lesbian, trans-gender or intersex or who live in poverty, can be subject to particularized forms of violence and discrimination.  These intersections must be explored in greater depth to ensure that the complexities of violence against women with disabilities are properly understood and addressed.”


Resource List


The Report contains an extensive “Selected Resources” appendix (primarily compiled by Northeastern University School of Law student, Sari M. Long, ’13 and the co-authors).  The Resource List includes links to major international treaties, statements of Human Rights Council mechanisms, leading international, regional, and domestic judicial decisions, numerous academic and social media articles, as well as non-governmental organizations. 


We hope the Report will be widely disseminated and that it will be a useful tool for policymakers, activists, legal advocates, students, and scholars.


The Report’s authors co-chair the International Disability Rights Interest Group of the American Society of International Law, but the views expressed in the Report do not necessarily reflect those of ASIL or the IDRIG.