Women with Disabilities

Conflict in post-colonial South Asia: How can women with disabilities demand justice?

Suppressing disability as a component of identity has had negative implications on the justice for women with disabilities (WWD) in the conflicts of post-colonial South Asia, namely the Partition of India and Pakistan and the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. The aim of this paper is to provide recommendations for justice for WWD, and this is achieved by drawing on the ideas and arguments of Urvashi Butalia (2000) and Yasmin Saikia (2008).http://v1.dpi.org/lang-en/resources/details?page=997#_ftn2 This paper is divided into three sections; the first of which explores identityโ€“and more specifically disability as a suppressed component of identity. The second part of this paper explores the implications of this on the experiences of, and justice for, WWD. The thirdโ€“and finalโ€“part of this paper offers recommendations for justice for WWD. This paper argues that disability should be embraced as a component of identity to thus facilitate a demand for justice from WWD through a voice of their ownโ€“rather than from others demanding it on their behalf.

When Butalia (2000, page 243) writes that "identity is a peculiar thing" she acknowledges that identity is fluid, with some components of our identity chosen by us, and others for us. There can be many components to identityโ€“such as status, class, gender, caste, occupation, sex, race, ethnicity and disability, to name a few. This paper focuses on disability; where disability is stigmatized in the majority of societies of the world and not yet an acceptedโ€“nor celebratedโ€“component of identity. As a result of this, many WWD perceive their disability as a component of their identity that must be suppressed, which thus has negative implications on their self-confidence and self-esteem and leads to a negative measure of self-worth. Adding to the marginalization of their identity, the Partition of India and Pakistan focused largely on religion as the strongest component of identity; that is, no identity apart from religious identity was important. As Butalia (2000, page 235) recognizes, "[religion was] the primary, indeed the only, identity at Partition." Additionally, the Liberation War of Bangladesh was largely fought along ethnic and racial lines. This narrowly understood definition of identity, coupled with the stigmatization and suppression of disability as a component of identity, left WWD at the margins of society.

In the context of conflict, the suppression of disability as a component of identity leaves women and girls largely invisible and ignored by society. WWD are disadvantaged further compared to people without disabilities due to socially constructed physical and mental barriers imposed on them. First, due to the fact that WWD are the poorest of the poor in many countries, the economic and social disadvantage imposed on them during the conflict has more paralyzing effects compared to women and girls without disabilities. This is due to the fact people living in poverty have less material and societal resources to assist them to survive. Second, the 200,000 raped women counted by the government of Bangladesh most likely did not include raped women and girls with disability. The rape of WWD would have gone largely unreported due to the fact that women and girls with physical disabilities are perceived as asexual and therefore unrapeable; that is, as having the inability to be raped. Third, escaping conflict involves traveling long distances to neighboring countries or other provinces to seek refuge and escape persecution. Butalia argues that people can run to escape conflict. However, many women with physical disabilities cannot run, and the physical barriers in transport and roads, to name a few, prevent them from escaping. In all three examples, WWD are ignored and invisible.

A common identity can facilitate people coming together in a group to call for change; and mobilize for their rights. On the one hand, Butalia argues that women and children did not group together under a common identity. As one woman affected by conflict in Bangladesh argues, "women are victims in this country. Help us, please, help us. We also deserve to live like human beings." (Saikia, page 283). This quote provides an insight into the fact that women depend on others to help them demand justice on their behalf. Butalia (page 260) argues that women should demand justice with a voice of their own pointing out that "women's voices...are hardly heard...it is the voices of those who purport to speak for women." Presenting the case of the Dalits during Partition, Butalia argues thatโ€“in contrast to womenโ€“Dalits "fought to insert their voices and selves into the battle. Recognize us, they seem to say, we too are a minority, we too fear for ourselves, we too have our own identity, our own rights and needs, we too want to come out of our land." (Ibid, page 251). The thread that tied Dalits together allowing them to raise their own voice and demand justice was a direct result of their strong identity. WWD however, do not have a unifying thread to motivate them to demand justice and promote their own rights because to do so would admit that disability should be an accepted and celebrated part of identity, rather than a shameful one. This however, largely remains to be seen; and is one of the greatest obstacles to demanding justice.

On the other hand, Saikiaโ€“in direct contrast to Butaliaโ€“argues that it is the responsibility of others to raise the voice of women on their behalf. Saikia argues, "listening to tales...imposes a responsibility. We are obliged to tell the stories of survivors, for these are the entry point to understand what happened. Along with telling, it is absolutely necessary that we learn to listen to what the people, the survivors, are saying. Only then we can come up with a language to report what we know [on their behalf]." (Saikia, 2008), page 281). Saikiaโ€“although not explicitly recognizing WWDโ€“argues that it is the responsibility of others to report the stories of WWD. However, Saikia does not explore the negative implications of breaking the silence and demanding justice on behalf of others; which this paper argues reinforces the perception of WWDโ€“both through their eyes and the eyes of othersโ€“as people who require others to demand justice on their behalf because they are unable and incapable of doing so for themselves.

Therefore, this paper recommends that WWD in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan should accept and celebrate disability as a component of their identity to thus facilitate a grouping together and fighting for their own rightsโ€“rather than accepting the silence imposed on them or placing the responsibility on others to speak on their behalf. In this way, this paper acknowledges the ideas of Butaliaโ€“rather than Saikiaโ€“for the method by which minorities should demand justice. The perceptions of ourselves are shaped and molded largely by our environment and by the majority population. However, WWD should carve and strengthen their mindset into understanding disability as a positive component of their identity and one separate from feelings of shame and embarrassment. The positive influences of strong Dalit identity in promoting justice and human rights presented in Butalia's paper is a formidable example on the positive implications of this for breaking the invisibility of minorities in society. The negative consequences of the good intentions of Saikia however, will only hinder the movement that this paper calls for; namely a movement by WWD for WWD. Further, this paper calls for people conducting research and seeking justice for women to recognize the relationship between disability and conflict, to cultivate disability as an identity within women, to thus partner with WWD and empower them to then raise their own voice to demand their own justice.

The author is currently completing a Masters in International Affairs at the AustralianNationalUniversity in Canberra, and has experience working in the disability and development field in Thailand and Indonesia. She is contactable via email at karagiozakis@yahoo.com.au

By: Ms. Maria Karagiozakis
When: 7/2/2014

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