Violence against women with disabilities is an under-reported problem

25 November 2020 |

Violence against women, including sexual violence, is a global problem. Unfortunately, this is also the case in Flanders. Moreover, women with a disability are victims much more often than we might think. This is what postdoctoral UGent researcher Tina Goethals discovered.

Tina Goethals (Special Education Department and Criminology, Criminal Law & Social Law Department) surveyed 120 women who had been sexually abused; half of these women have a mental disability, while the other half have a physical one. It was found that more than 85% of the group had never reported the most serious abuses to the police. Previous research has indicated that people, particularly women with a disability, are more likely to be victims of sexual violence. But that, it turns out, might be an understatement, given that a lot of the abuse is not reported.


The reasons why these women do not report the crime are diverse. For example, some are afraid of the perpetrator, or do not trust police officers or have had negative experiences with the police. While other women do not know who or where to turn, or do not realize the seriousness of the situation. Tina: “Many of the women I spoke with during the study know very little about sexuality. They often think that sex is a must. Or they feel guilty and feel that they themselves have a share in the abuse … even though they are the victims of criminal offenses.”

Never been told

The women who do report the crimes usually report this via a counselor or a teacher, or sometimes via a family member or partner - but never directly to the police. Tina: “It was often the case that it was only after I had spoken with them that they realized that they had experienced things that were actually not okay. These were things they had never told anyone. In other women, the abuse only came to light when they were found to be pregnant.”

"This is not about isolated cases, but an almost daily occurrence of violating behavior."

Sexually-violating behavior on a daily basis

The majority of women with intellectual disabilities did not know what had happened to their complaint. They had hardly received any psychological help, and certainly no practical assistance either — despite these women suffering very serious sexual crimes, such as gang rape or rape after being kidnapped. Tina: “Besides the often very serious facts of the cases, it was striking how sexual violence was ingrained in many women’s lives. This is not about isolated cases, but an almost daily occurrence of violating behavior. Indeed, they often have to deal with the issue of having their sexual boundaries violated since childhood.”


Structural changes

Those with a disability don’t often receive much attention in scientific research, and this is even more true in the case of intellectual disabilities. This group is difficult to reach because they often don’t have a personal email or postal address. In addition, a classic survey is not easily accessible to them. They cannot always read or understand the questions without help. This was therefore the very first research that focused on the experiences of women with a disability regarding sexual violence. It came at the request of the Flemish Minister of Equal Opportunities. The report is now two years old, but to date no further steps have been taken. Tina: “It has been discussed in the Flemish Parliament. At one point there was even talk of follow-up research. But in the end nothing more has happened.”


There are however many recommendations in the report. Among others, it is important to invest in basic training for future care providers. Care providers, the report states, must also receive better support and guidance. It is not only important that they realize when they themselves have crossed a boundary, but also that they better recognize the signs of sexual violence in victims. In addition, appropriate follow-up care of the victims is essential — the impact of sexual violence is severe and can endure for a long time.

The report also recommends better sexual education. It is important that those with a disability receive training on the subject, and that it should begin from childhood so that they can better determine their own limits.

There are many other proposals in the report. Tina: “In particular, we recommend applying structural changes so that we can prevent this violence in the first instance. If it does happen, it is important that the women can report it more easily and that they are better supported.”

Questions about violence or abuse?

Violence cannot be justified in any situation. Never hesitate to ask for help. You can contact the professional helpline for questions about violence, sexual abuse or child abuse or maltreatment by dialling the number 1712.

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