Thousands of young people and girls around the world are confined to situations of isolation and seclusion, exposed to daily abuse and violence. The laws, instead of protecting them, are a big part of the problem, allowing families, judges or institutions in charge of their care to decide on procedures like hysterectomies, sterilization, or the so-called growth attenuation therapies on their behalf, with irreversible consequences in their lives.
The lack of protection of these young girls and boys under State tutelage become painfully evident in the victims of forced sterilization in Chile or Spain, the thousands of young people and girls with psychosocial disability languishing in institutions in India, or in the more than 40 adolescents and girls killed in a fire at the Virgen de la Asunción shelter, in Guatemala. These cases are just the tip of an iceberg made up of countless young people and girls with disabilities institutionalized around the world, under the pretext of protecting them against sexual abuse and improving their quality of life.
Together, these practices become a framework of public policies explicitly designed to reduce or eliminate disability. At the same time, they reveal the prejudices, myths and fantasies that taint the way our societies imagine and perceive the sexuality of persons with disabilities.
Prejudices, stereotypes and abuse.
The most common myths imagine the sexuality of women with disabilities as non-existent, therefore unworthy of attention, or as a problem that needs to be controlled or suppressed. Women with disabilities are imagined either as asexual, or hyper sexualized, and almost always outside of social conventions on beauty. These perceptions, accentuated in the cases of intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, cause serious problems of depression and self-esteem, reinforced by the low expectations of family and social environments.
In the case of adolescents, the common idea that they are incapable of making autonomous decisions is used as pretext to prevent their access to essential information for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and sexual violence.
These social perceptions explain why institutional responses to the sexuality of young persons with disabilities tend to be extreme, controlling or eliminating it through legal restrictions and medical procedures, or excluding them from education programs and services that are essential to lead healthy and safe sexual and reproductive lives.
Reality, however, dispel the myths. Scientific studies conducted in contexts as different as Sweden and Brazil reveal that the patterns of behavior and aspirations of young people with disabilities regarding sex and relationships do not differ from those of young people without disabilities. The same studies argue that, in fact, the laws that segregate and impede the access of young people with disabilities to information, services and education only aggravate the risks that these girls and boys face.
Unsurprisingly, the current legal and institutional frameworks fail to include and protect these girls and young women, since they were not designed to respond to their needs, but to those of their families and the professionals in charge of their care. That explains why institutionalization, paternalistic schemes and infantilization have become their main tools. The long history of segregated institutions and legal guardianship regimes that still prevails today, is a main cause behind the widespread gender violence and abuse against women and girls with disabilities around the world.
Solutions are within reach.
Breaking the cycle of violence against young people and girls with disabilities requires leaving behind assumptions and stereotypes, and focusing on practices that contribute to their true well-being. This is ultimately, what human rights are about. Experience shows that informed consent on any decision regarding sexual and reproductive health is the most effective way to prevent practices such as sterilization and forced abortions, among other forms of abuse and gender-based violence. Experience also shows that access to adequate sexuality education is essential for personal empowerment, promoting healthier lives free of abuse.
Laws that allow young women with disabilities to be sterilized, or subjected to other procedures without their consent must be immediately abolished. No circumstance can justify that judges, relatives or institutions consent to procedures of this nature on a girl or young woman. International treaties on the rights of persons with disabilities and the rights of the child correctly identify these cruel practices as violating their fundamental rights. Families, schools and health centers should instead promote and facilitate the access of girls and young women with disabilities to information, education and services that are essential for a healthy and dignified sexual life.
Governments, civil society and the international community have a fundamental responsibility in enacting the changes needed to end these forms of abuse, and all other forms of gender violence. Only by working together will we be able to break the cycle of ignorance, abuse and violence that continue to affect the lives of so many young people with disabilities around the world. The protection of their rights is an indispensable condition to achieve gender equality, and to fulfill the promise of leaving no one behind.