The International Day of Persons with Disabilities is observed on 3 December to promote the full and equal participation of such individuals in all aspects of society. People with disabilities account for about 15% of the world’s population; sadly, there is a proclivity towards understanding them as a homogenous group, without consideration of their diversity of (such as gender identities). Consequently, the experiences of women with disabilities are not acknowledged, nor adequately addressed.
A report on violence against women with disabilities, titled ‘Forgotten Sisters’ (2012), cites that women and young persons with disabilities are subjected to stereotypes, such as being asexual or hypersexual, as well as multiple forms of discrimination due to inaccessible facilities, poverty and isolation. The intersectionality of gender inequality and disability further perpetuates endemic violence against women with disabilities.
That is why, in light of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign and International Day for Persons with Disabilities, Estelle Roos, a blind student at UP, has chosen to relate her personal experience of abuse, to highlight the invisible crisis against women with disabilities. She has also requested that her narrative be used to improve upon current programmes that have been put in place to prevent gender-based violence but that do not take into account the unique challenges faced by women with disabilities.
Note: This story contains recollections of sexual violation, which might be distressing for some readers.
When I was 17, I was sexually assaulted twice in less than 10 months. The two situations were unrelated, and I still struggle to make peace with it. The truth is that I am a victim. Asking me to see myself as anything more – at least until I’ve accepted what happened – is honestly an insult. I am allowed to grieve the violation of my privacy and my space. I am allowed to grieve the loss of the parties, bars and clubs that scare me.
At a school dance in my matric year, I was groped. It was deliberate, and everybody expected me to be fine with an apology from the perpetrator. But I was determined to take it further. I reported the incident the next day and it was escalated to members of staff who could deal with it appropriately.
The charges were later dismissed, because even though I could identify his jacket and his arms, he admitted to it and someone had seen him in my vicinity, there was apparently not enough evidence. I have thought about the outfit I wore that night on countless occasions. I wonder, if I’d been a little quieter, a little less in a party mood, if it wouldn’t have happened. I blame myself, even though a part of me knows it wasn’t my fault. My parents also encouraged me to drop the charges.
Later that year, I was at a party. People were drinking and smoking weed – typical student stuff. As a rule, I tend not to drink much alcohol, if at all. A friend and I went to sleep early. Because the party ended late, we were encouraged to stay over and go home the next morning. I woke up a few hours later to somebody touching me, pressing their body against me, trying to gain access to the more intimate parts of me. I froze. I couldn’t move at first. At some point, I lashed out and tried to kick the person, and it stopped.
I was distraught. I cried a lot. I was scared to be alone, to go to the bathroom on my own, to go back to sleep. We couldn’t figure out who it was at first, but by process of elimination, we did. The following morning, everyone who was awake confronted the person. They admitted what they’d done, blamed it on being inebriated and offered me their number if I wanted to lodge a complaint with the police. I knew I would have been well within my rights to, but I didn’t do it. I didn’t want to be told I still had too little evidence. I didn’t want the person to back out. I knew there has been witnesses, as it were, but I didn’t want to relive the experience.
Of course, I kept reliving it. I still relive it. I get anxious when a man gets too close, pushes me too hard for my number. I get nervous thinking of having to be at big social events as my university career progresses. I get nervous about walking alone in an area that’s too quiet, even in broad daylight.
I’m not sure why I’m telling my story. To be honest, I’m not sure if this will do you any good reading it. I know that this is real for me and countless other women. I know that – because I can’t see – my claims are so often dismissed without a second thought. The justice system and any authority system that are in place to help women bring these perpetrators to justice need to be open to the various possibilities.
My senses matter and my disability matters. I matter.
Estelle Roos is a student at UP.
Introduction by Maria Ramaahlo, Head: Disability Unit at the University of Pretoria (UP).
Students who have experienced sexual misconduct of any sort are encouraged to contact the Transformation Office for assistance. Email Sarah Matseke ([email protected]) or Nontsikelelo Loteni ([email protected]).
ADD International (2013). Disability and Gender-Based Violence. Retrieved from,
Ortoleva, S., & Lewis, H. (2012). Forgotten Sisters: A Report on Violence Against Women with Disabilities: An Overview of its Nature, Scope, Causes and Consequences (2012). Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 104-2012, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2133332
United Nations. (2020). International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), 3 December 2020.
- Author Maria Ramaahlo and Estelle Roos.