Monday, December 11, 2006

UN International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women - White Ribbon Day

[Originally put together on 25 November 2005]

"White Ribbon Day was created in 1991 on the second anniversary of one man's massacre of 14 women in Montreal, by a handful of Canadian men who began the White Ribbon campaign to urge men to speak out against violence against women.

Did you know... Worldwide, 1 in 3 women experience some form of violence.

In Australia - 57% of women have been subjected to violence during their lives.
- Domestic violence contributes to more ill-health and premature death than any other single cause for women aged 15-44.

Internationally - Women are the highest proportion of the adult civilian population killed in war, and targeted for abuse.
- Women and children make up the majority of refugees and internally displaced people forced to flee their homes due to armed conflict.
- Rape is used as a weapon of war and a method of intimidation by military and other conflict groups.

Wearing a white ribbon is a personal pledge to not commit, condone nor remain silent about violence against women and children."

[The above was taken from publicity for an event for this year's Day - there aren't any cites for the stats on the publicity and I'm still trying to load up the Amnesty International Australia page to check]

The following is a speech I made at a public event held on last year's Day.

Talk for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – 25 November 2004

`Whether we speak or not,
The machine will crush us to bits--
and we will also be afraid

Your silence
will not
protect you'

- Audre Lourde

A 13 year old girl is repeatedly threatened by her classmates. "After school we are going to get you behind the bike sheds and you're dead, we're going to kill you." As she walks through the halls at school, boys run past her and hit her on the shoulders and back, hard. These same boys push her down high flights of steps. And it's not just the boys, the girls too have their own form of assault. They use words, silence, subtle innuendo. The teachers do nothing. She lives in a constant state of fear, not knowing when the next blow will fall, where the next insult will come from. At home there is no reprieve. She is still not safe. She tells her mother what happens at school. Her mother tells her "They pick on you because you are obnoxious." She has nightmares, several times a week she wakes up screaming, she is trapped, and no one is there to help her or protect her. There is no escape.

This is a true story. But not one hundred percent true, I've left out one thing. The girl in the story has cerebral palsy. She can walk, but with difficulty, and she often trips and falls. She cannot run away from her attackers. She is at their mercy, and they don't have much of that.

When I wrote this talk, the hardest part was not deciding what to talk about, but deciding what to leave out. I have so many stories like this one, the details are all different. But they are all true and I lived though them, barely.

I grew up in a family that verbally and emotionally abused me because they couldn't cope with my disability. I was constantly criticized and insulted. My parents bullied and intimidated me, yelling at me when I fell over or was unable to keep up with them. They refused to help me when I needed it, and didn't even give me the basic love and care that all human beings need and should have. As far as they were concerned I was defective, broken, something to be ashamed of. And I believed them. I had no choice. There was no one around to tell me any differently.

I have suffered from severe clinical depression since the age of seven and first thought of suicide at the age of 12. The pain of living with what had been done to me and the loneliness and isolation was so unbearable that 8 years ago I ended up in hospital twice in 6 months after overdosing on pills. After the first suicide attempt I went to my parents place for the weekend. My depression meant that I hadn't been eating properly for months and had lost a dangerous amount of weight and was weak and shaky, I was also suffering from severe insomnia. The first night at my parents I was unable to get to sleep until 4 am. I was woken up at 8 am, and was given a list of household chores to do, including vacuuming the whole house. Apparently, according to them, I was depressed because I didn't have enough to do. My family have always refused to see or admit that there is anything wrong with the way that they treated me. The abuse continued until I was 27 years old, when I finally cut off all contact with them. I have suffered from nightmares several times a week for twenty years. The week after I spoke to my mother for the last time, the nightmares stopped.

Violence against women with disabilities is a taboo subject, most people don't want to know that we are mistreated and abused. I can't count the amount of times people have said to me, "But your family wouldn't treat you like that, no one would abuse a child with a disability, your parents must love you." It has been very hard to argue with those responses. I didn't, and still don't, want to acknowledge that I was treated the way that I was. I want to believe that I have a family that loves me, that sees me as a valuable person and someone worth protecting. But I don't. I've only just realized in the last few weeks - that if you love someone, you don't deliberately mistreat them, and you don't stand by and let others treat them badly.

We live in a world where people with disabilities are seen as objects. Objects of pity, objects of fear. You don't have to treat an object with respect, you can do whatever you like to it and no one will stop you. One of the most difficult things to cope with as a person with a disability is the fact that many non-disabled people only see the disability when they look at you. As a result you unwittingly become public property. It is very common when you have a disability to be accosted in the street by complete strangers who demand to know "what is wrong with you", and expect you to drop whatever you are doing to give them an answer. I've been asked - with no warning at all - such questions as "So, what have you done to yourself then?", "How long have you been confined to that" - indicating my scooter, and "What's wrong with you, you don't look sick". I've had a number of people come up to me over the years and tell me "Oh, I think you are so brave, if I was like you I would kill myself". There are many stereotypes about women with disabilities. Stereotypes that paint us as weak, dependent, asexual, incompetent, unattractive, and drains on the economy. We are none of these things. Neither are we tragic heroines overcoming our disabilities, or particularly brave or inspirational. We are simply human beings, living our lives, as flawed and imperfect and as real as anyone else. Unfortunately many people still mistake the stereotypes for actual facts and this leaves us vulnerable to violence, neglect and abuse.

People often say to me that they don't know how to behave around people with disabilities, they don't know what to or how to act. This is often used as an excuse or reason for our mistreatment. There is no excuse. Any form of violence directed towards women with disabilities is unacceptable. We should not have to live in fear.

There is very little research on violence and women with disabilities. The research that has been done exposes a terrifying reality. Women with disabilities are more than four times as likely to be assaulted as other women. We are significantly more likely to experience emotional and sexual abuse than able-bodied women, with the abuse lasting for longer periods of time. As many as 83% of women with developmental disabilities have been sexually abused. At least 85% of women with disabilities have experienced domestic violence.

For the last 18 months I have been organizing monthly forums for women with disabilities. We have speakers on a wide variety of topics that are relevant to our lives. The forums are a place where we can get together and share information and experiences, meet others who have gone through the same things. Too many of us have been victims of abuse, subjected to violence at the hands of our families, our partners, our caregivers and strangers. In September our group received funding to run a self defence course specifically for women with disabilities. Every one of the women attending the course had been subjected to some form of violence or abuse, at least once in their lives, either at home or out in the community. The self defence techniques we learned have meant that we all feel more able to defend ourselves if we are attacked. It is essential that women with disabilities have the chance to learn how to protect themselves and I hope to get funding to run this course at least once a year.

Speaking up about such a controversial subject as this one is not easy, but it is the only way to stop the violence and start making changes in the way women with disabilities are treated. It is agonizing to be up here and tell you the things I have today, but I can't, and I won't, keep silent about them. I don't want anyone else to go through the hell I went through, the hell I know too many other women with disabilities have been through. It never goes away. Even when you have control over your life and are no longer in danger, the scars remain, the memories never entirely leave you. Apparently adversity and suffering develop character, or so people keep telling me. Trust me, nobody needs this much character.

There are three things that I'd like to say to anyone who recognized themselves in what I've been talking about, any woman with a disability who has experienced any kind of violence or abuse:

It is never your fault, you do NOT deserve to be treated like this.

Don't keep silent about what is happening, tell someone you trust. If they don't believe you, keep trying until you find someone who does.

You are not alone, there are people out there who do care, who will help you. They may be hard to find, but keep going until you do.

And one last thing to everyone here today, the most important thing. Please remember, we are not only our disabilities. We are more than statistics. We are your daughters, your sisters, your mothers, your wives, your friends and coworkers. We are women.

©November 2004

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