Indigenous women and girls with disabilities bigger targets of sexual violence

| February 9, 2016
Photo: flickr/Christian Peacemaker Teams Aboriginal Justice Team

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Recently a headline read: "Man who got 11-year-old pregnant jailed." It was stated that the young girl was particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse because she had intellectual disabilities and functioned "at about the level of a child half her age."

A moral society takes care of the most vulnerable. A person has to wonder why it is that Indigenous women and girls with disabilities are targeted by violent sexual predators at a greater rate yet there is a gap in research -- the first step needed to create the change needed.

There are approximately two million women (13.3 per cent of total population) in Canada who have disabilities. It is estimated that 40 per cent of these women will experience assault, sexual assault, and abuse in their lifetime.

Women and girls with disabilities experience sexual assaults at four times the rate of the national average, and between 40-70 per cent of girls with intellectual disabilities will experience sexual victimization before they are 18 years of age.

Further, in comparison to non-disabled women, women with disabilities experience intimate partner violence 1.2 times greater, are two times as likely to report severe physical violence, and are three times as likely to be forced into sexual activity. These statistics are alarming to say the least.

Canada takes (slow) steps in ending violence

In 2007 Canada became a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 16, Freedom from Exploitation, Violence and Abuse, in part reads:

"States Parties shall put in place effective legislation and policies, including women- and child-focused legislation and policies, to ensure that instances of exploitation, violence and abuse against persons with disabilities are identified, investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted."

Recently, the new Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, and the Minister of Status of Women Patty Hajdu moved on one of the liberal campaign promises: an inquiry into the phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The official government website offers:

"The Government of Canada understands that a meaningful national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls must only be designed after hearing the ideas and perspectives of survivors, families, loved ones, Indigenous organizations and communities, provinces and territories, and experts. To make sure these voices are heard, a national engagement process will take place over the coming months."

In 2010 the Native Women's Association of Canada's Sisters in Spirit initiative identified 582 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And in 2014 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified a total of 1,181 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

At the time the RCMP also reported that while homicide rates for non-Indigenous women are declining, the homicide rates for Indigenous women have remained unchanged. These numbers are also alarming.

Indigenous women and girls with disabilities bigger targets

Indigenous women and girls with disabilities are always lost within the layers of structural oppression imposed on them: racism, sexism, and ableism. Can you spot her and her plight in a crowd? While her story has not been explored there are related statistics that can begin to open a window and give us insight into what she is living with.

While the history of euthanizing (read murdering) people with disabilities and their institutionalization have gained more awareness in the realm of social justice, there exists very little research examining violence against Aboriginal women and girls with disabilities.

It has been determined that Aboriginal peoples have a rate of disability that is 2.3 times the national standard (NAND 1994 in Durst and Bluechardt 2004). What is this in real numbers? Previously Durst and Bluechardt (2004) have reported that 184,000 First Nation status Indians and 310,000 self-identifying non-status Aboriginal peoples had a disability.

It is interesting to note that while Aboriginal people are born with disabilities equal to Canadian people, Aboriginal people acquire disabilities throughout their lives at a higher rate. This is due to issues related to the social determinants of health and wellness such as poverty, poor housing, and diseases such as Type II diabetes, as well as cultural issues such as hunting as a way of life.

While the total Canadian population have rates of hearing and vision loss at 23 per cent and nine per cent respectively, self-identifying Aboriginal people suffer these same disabilities at a rate of 35 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. The status population is comparable to the self-identifying Aboriginal population (Durst and Bluechardt 2004).

It stands to reason, and most critical theorists and thinkers will understand, that when looking at matters of social justice it is important to consider the dangers that manifest at the confluence of being a woman, Aboriginal, and disabled.

Of course all women and girls with disabilities are bigger targets of sexual predators and of course Aboriginal women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable and thus even bigger targets of sexual predators.

Despite the ability to critically rationalize this situation there is a gap in the research and literature to effectively begin to address this ugly reality for Aboriginal women and girls with disabilities.

While this gap in the research and literature exists, in 2010 The Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre compiled a collection of related statistics that shed light on the issue.

  • 83 per cent of developmentally disabled females have been victims of sexual assault (Johnson and Sigler 2000)

  • 83 per cent of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime (Stimpson and Best 1991)

  • The rate of sexual abuse for girls with disabilities is four times that of the national average (Razack 1994).

  • Indigenous women reported domestic and sexual violence at a rate of 3.5 times higher than non-Indigenous women (Brzozowski, Taylor-Butts, and Johnson 2006)

  • Eight out of 10 Aboriginal women in Ontario experienced violence in their relationships where 87 per cent were physically injured and 57 per cent were sexually abused (ONWA 1989)

  • 75-95 per cent of women in Northern Aboriginal communities have been physically abused (ONWA 1989)

  • 84 per cent of homeless Indigenous girls have been sexually abused (McCreary Centre Society 2002)

  • 90 per cent of federally sentenced Aboriginal women have reported physical and sexual abuse (NWAC 2007)

While these statistics inform us of the rate of Indigenous people with disabilities, the rate of physical and sexual violence perpetrated against women with disabilities, and the rate of physical and sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women, they do not inform us about the rates of physical and sexual violence that Indigenous women and girls with disabilities have to contend with.

Said another way, what these statistics indirectly tell us is that Indigenous women and girls are more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, there is the need to address a significant research and knowledge gap, and also that the missing and murder Indigenous women's inquiry must dedicate time, research, and funding in this area.

Issues the national inquiry must consider

  • Needed is a comprehensive literature review on the research and issues related to Indigenous women and girls with disabilities.

  • The design of the inquiry must be accommodated in a way that ensures that all Indigenous women and girls who want to participate are able to participate. These accommodations must include mechanisms and methods by which persons with hearing, vision, and physical limitations can participate.

Questions the national inquiry must consider

  • What are the rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls with disabilities?

  • What are the experiences of Indigenous women and girls with disabilities that have been victims of violence?

  • Are Indigenous women and girls with disabilities being repeatedly targeted?

  • Are Indigenous women and girls with disabilities being harmed by heath care and service providers?

  • Are Indigenous women and girls with disabilities who are institutionalized being targeted?

  • What policy, services, and funding dollars need to be put in place to eliminate the vulnerability of Indigenous women and girls with disabilities?

Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabekwe. She is an outspoken critic of colonial law and policies that harm Indigenous women, children, and the land. Her book The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin on the Algonquin Land Claims Process is available with Fernwood. You can see Lynn's work at

Fiona Whittington-Walsh, Ph.D. teaches and is the department chair of sociology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. Her research interests include the intersection of disability and gender. She has published in Today's Parent and Disability & Society.

Photo: flickr/Christian Peacemaker Teams Aboriginal Justice Team



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