Gemma Holliani Cahya, Jakarta – The COVID-19 health crisis has made it difficult for Indonesian women with disabilities to access help and support, local advocacy groups say, as a recent survey shows that a majority of women with disabilities have been experiencing gender-based violence.
The survey, conducted in August by the Indonesian Women's Coalition (KPI) and the Association of Indonesian Women with Disabilities (HWDI), found that 80 percent of respondents had experienced abuse during the health emergency. Of that figure, 70 percent said they had experienced sexual abuse, while 15 percent said they had been raped and 10 percent said they had been sexually exploited.
In most cases, the women experienced abuse perpetrated by the people closest to them, such as family members and intimate partners.
Involving 50 respondents in 14 provinces across the country, the survey participants comprised 48 women and two men with disabilities, of whom 54 percent have physical disabilities, 20 percent have sensory disabilities, 6 percent have intellectual disabilities, while the remainder have various other forms of disabilities.
KPI secretary-general Mike Verawati Tangka said there was reason to believe that the number of disabled women who experienced abuse could be higher during the nearly seven months since early March, when the government declared the COVID-19 health emergency. But the survey did not clearly illustrate that the attendant restriction policies had made it more difficult for women to report abuse.
"There has been limited mobility due to the large-scale social restrictions [PSBB], which has resulted in limited access to [direct] communication as well as telecommunications services.community support has also slowed as a result of the pandemic," Mike said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday.
He suggested further that limited access to in-person consultations and assistance also reduced the effectiveness of available services. Critical visual cues such as body language, he added, were often lost in telephone and video calls.
Even before COVID-19 swept through Indonesia, both children and women with disabilities were at a greater risk of violence than nondisabled children and women. The 2018 Young Persons with Disabilities global study, by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), found that women with disabilities faced up to 10 times more gender-based violence than women who did not have disabilities. The study also found that girls with intellectual disabilities were particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.
HWDI chairwoman Maulani Rotinsulu said the association had recorded 142 cases of abuse against women with disabilities between 2017 and 2019. The majority of the reported cases were rape cases (33 percent), followed by discrimination (20 percent) and physical abuse (17 percent).
"This is very cruel and shameful for a nation that adheres to the principles of fairness and civility," Maulani said at Tuesday's press conference.
She also said that the HWDI's record of reported cases could be just the tip of the iceberg, because sexual assault and abuse against people with disabilities were often not reported. Most perpetrators were family members, friends or neighbors who were known to the victims.
The HWDI also found that around half of all reported cases of sexual violence against women with disabilities were never legally processed.
"Some 21 percent of sexual violence cases end up with the victim being married off to the perpetrator," said Maulani.
Ratna Dewi, a member of HWGI Yogyakarta, recounted assisting a 35-year-old woman with an intellectual disability from Kulonprogo regency who said that she had been raped by a neighbor. The neighbor who allegedly committed the rape was the head of a community unit (RT) in the woman's village.
Ratna said that the woman's hip bone was fractured during the course of the rape, and that she experienced severe depression as well as trauma as a result of the assault. The police collected as evidence the dress that the woman had worn and which had been torn when the rape occurred, and she also underwent a sexual assault forensic exam.
"But because of her [intellectual disability], the police said her story was inconsistent and that there wasn't enough evidence [to arrest the neighbor]," Ratna said. "In the end, the police asked the woman's family to apologize to the [neighbor] because they had defamed him."
Ratna and other women's rights activists urged communities and law enforcement to look at cases from the perspective of rape victims, especially on cases in which the victim was a woman with disabilities.
"The mindset of all parties must change. They must not look at people with disabilities as 'lesser' and not worth fighting for," she said.
Under the prevailing laws in Indonesia, victims of sexual abuse are not entitled to any assistance from the state. Sexual abuse victims, including women and children with disabilities, must reach into their own pockets to pay for any legal fees if they decide to go through the process, as well as any costs for their treatment and rehabilitation.
Rights activists have sounded the alarm, underlining that the bill on eradicating sexual violence, known as the RUU PKS, was pivotal to ensuring protection for and the wellbeing of victims of sexual violence.
"We have put our hopes in this bill so that the survivors, including women with disabilities, will get better access to services and assistance," said Mike of the KPI.