Take Five: “Services need to be made accessible to women with different types of disabilities”

Date: Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Veronika Mitro is one of the most vocal advocates for women’s rights in Serbia, with a particular focus on the sexuality of women with disabilities. She is one of the founders of the Women's Studies and Research Centre in Novi Sad, Serbia. Currently, she is working at the NGO ...iz kruga - Vojvodina’, which is partnering with UN Women to provide services to survivors of gender-based violence – specifically women from marginalized groups, including women with disabilities, and survivors of rape and sexual assault.

Veronika Mitro, Founder of the Women’s Studies and Research Centre. Photo: Courtesy of Veronika Mitro
Veronika Mitro, Founder of the Women’s Studies and Research Centre. Photo: Courtesy of Veronika Mitro

In the context of your work with the regional programme, ‘Implementing Norms, Changing Minds’, you’re collecting data on the experience of women with disabilities who have experienced violence. How’s their situation in Serbia? What are the main issues they face?

The main issues they face include the physical and communication barriers to accessing services and institutions, and the widespread prejudice and stereotypical attitudes among service providers, as well as the fact that women with disabilities are not well informed about their rights.

Women with disabilities are most often members of traditional associations of persons with disabilities, for which membership is determined by the type of disability. Most of these organizations focus on securing benefits for people with disabilities; important issues like gender-based violence, parenting and sexuality are often sidelined.

What actions should be prioritized to ensure sufficient and specialized services for women with disabilities who experience violence in Serbia?

First of all, services need to be made accessible to women with different types of disabilities. Raising awareness and strengthening professional capacities and skills is particularly important for working with women with different types of disabilities, especially those with sensory and intellectual disabilities. Additionally, service providers should be aware of the specific forms of discrimination that women with disabilities are exposed to, such as refusal of assistance, drug deprivation or abuse, neglect or lack of support, and denial of social assistance by family members.

How can we respond to the needs of women with disabilities, in relation to violence against women?

First and foremost, it is important that we trust them and talk to them like any other woman who has experienced violence. The ‘safety plan’ for a woman with disabilities must take into account the nature of her disability, accessibility concerns and the availability of support. It is important that each plan is made together WITH the women, not FOR the women. It is also important to be aware that women with disabilities are not a homogeneous group.

The medical concept of disability often ignores the reproductive rights of women with disabilities, putting diagnosis ahead of femininity and humanity. Individual sexual profiles and the reproductive desires of women with disabilities thus remain invisible, ignored and stigmatized. How can this be tackled?

The most important thing is that the movement for the rights of people with disabilities, as well as the women's movement, recognize the gender dimension of disability and then influence sexual and reproductive health policies, acknowledging the specific needs of women with disabilities.

Women with disabilities often experience multiple layers of discrimination at the intersection of their disability, their gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. What can be done to ensure that the response to violence against women with disabilities takes into account this intersectional dimension?

Bearing in mind the experience of our organization, we consider it extremely important to properly inform and educate both the professionals and the general public, as well as women with disabilities, about the complexity and multi-layered dimensions of gender-based and domestic violence. At the same time, we should be learning from those – still relatively few – who have experience of preventing violence against women and protecting women who have experienced it in their local communities. We should advocate for local models of cross-sectoral cooperation and interventions that respect the specificity of the situation of every woman who has experienced violence. An intersectional approach to the problem of gender-based violence will remain difficult to implement without an increase in public awareness of the issue.