A new outlook: shining a light on the impact of gender-based violence on the mental health of disabled women
By survivor and campaigner, Saliha Rashid
Disabled women are nearly three times more likely to experience domestic abuse (including honour-based abuse), in comparison to non-disabled women, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Shockingly, in the majority of cases, the perpetrators are those who supposedly care for and love these women the most. Many victims are subject to various forms of abuse for long periods of time, which leads to feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and low self-esteem. Yet the impact upon the mental health of disabled survivors is rarely spoken about and is an area which is extremely under-researched.
For many disabled women, the abuse they endure is compounded by their disability or health condition. This may include physical abuse such as taking away their walking aids or moving them out of reach, withholding medication, and physical violence. Psychological abuse includes taunts related to having a disability, being made to feel incapable, and being told that you will not amount to anything. It may also include financial abuse –through withholding their money/benefits. This often coincides with controlling behaviour, including not being allowed to leave the house, and having day-to-day activities monitored. Dangerously, perpetrators will often argue that they are protecting the victim and acting in their best interests, resulting in women not being believed by professionals when seeking help. This exacerbates the feelings of isolation and entrapment, as well as feelings of worthlessness.
In September this year, I was invited to a weekend in the beautiful Lake District — my favourite place on earth! This was not just any weekend; it was a weekend volunteering with the Outlook Trust — a charity founded by teachers from the school I attended when I was a child. The charity provides short breaks for young people who are visually impaired, like me. For the weeks leading up to this, I felt child-like excitement and joy at the prospect of water sports, something I always felt when I was young. Sadly, as a teenager, this wonderful activity was taken away from me.
Coming from a community that upholds an honour system, my life drastically changed during my teenage years, when I was seen as a woman – and no longer a girl – in the eyes of my community. An honour-based system is one that is particularly used to control the behaviour of women and girls within families, to protect supposed cultural and religious beliefs, values and social norms in the name of ‘honour’. Consequently, everything in my life was restricted, so that everyday things that people take for granted – from going out with friends, to the time I went to bed and the books I read – were under constant scrutiny. More significantly for me, being prevented from going on school trips had a detrimental impact upon my mental health. Whilst my peers would excitedly relay what they got up to during these trips, I would listen enviously. I lost my self-confidence during this time, and, for many years, I forgot what it meant to have fun. I look back at my teenage years as the most isolating period of my life.
During my teenage years, I would reach out to my teachers about the abuse I was experiencing at the hands of my own family, some of whom believed me, but were powerless to take action. However, the response from other staff members was not so positive, they thought that I was exaggerating my circumstances.
When I reached out to other organisations, they did not know how to support a disabled person. I felt trapped, and like there was no way out.
It takes tremendous bravery and courage for all women and girls to take steps to leave an abusive situation. Disabled survivors face additional barriers, such as inaccessible refuge accommodation—less than 10% of refuges are accessible to disabled women. Accessing necessary care and support also takes time, and often requires women to relocate, resulting in women feeling isolated in an unfamiliar town or city. This is in addition to the continued abuse faced by survivors, often lasting for many years after leaving a relationship. Other survivors lose their whole family overnight, and are forced to build their lives back up, miles away from everything they have known. All these factors negatively impact the mental wellbeing of survivors, and in many cases, lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
It took me three attempts to leave behind my abusive home environment and gain independence. I made two attempts to leave during my late teenage years, and returned home each time, due to the lack of support available to me. I finally left in 2012 whilst at university, and didn’t look back. I am extremely fortunate to have rebuilt my life – it has taken a huge amount of healing and self-reflection. For me, becoming a campaigner was my therapy, and I am extremely lucky to have been given the platforms to speak out. Finally, it is of great significance to me that I am now involved with the Outlook Trust, the same charity that I was prevented from accessing, with the aim of empowering young people to embrace this adventure we call life.