The Guardian • Issue #2093


Gaps to close

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2093
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The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a stark reminder of the often invisible struggles faced by older women and women with disabilities, who are at a heightened risk of various forms of abuse. Despite the gravity of their situation, these vulnerable groups are frequently overlooked in global and national datasets concerning violence. To address this critical gap, the WHO has released two new publications that call for more comprehensive research to ensure these women are not only counted but also have their unique needs understood and catered to.

The scant data available paints a troubling picture: women with disabilities are more susceptible to intimate partner violence than those without, and both older women and women with disabilities experience higher rates of sexual violence. Author Dr Lynnmarie Sardinha, Technical Officer at WHO and the UN Special Programme on Human Reproduction (HRP) for Violence against Women Data and Measurement stresses the importance of inclusive research. She points out that the lack of representation of these groups in violence research undermines the effectiveness of programs designed to support them. It is crucial, she argues, to understand the diverse impacts of violence and the accessibility of services to these women, to truly end violence in all its forms.

Intimate partner violence and sexual violence are the most prevalent forms of gender-based violence worldwide, affecting approximately one in three women. However, older women and women with disabilities not only face these common threats but also specific risks and additional forms of abuse. These can range from coercive and controlling behaviours by caregivers, such as withholding medicines or assistive devices, to financial abuse.

A WHO-conducted review found that among women aged 60 and above, physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence remains the most common form of abuse. However, there is a notable shift from physical and/or sexual violence to psychological violence, including threats of abandonment and other controlling behaviours, as both the victims and their partners age.

The isolation experienced by older women and women with disabilities can be profound when violence occurs, making it exceedingly difficult for them to escape or report the abuse. This isolation is often compounded by stigma and discrimination, which can further hinder their access to services or information and lead to their accounts of violence being dismissed by those who are supposed to help.

Dr Avni Amin, Head of the Rights and Equality across the Life Course Unit at WHO and HRP, emphasises that gender-based violence is deeply rooted in unequal power dynamics and control over women. For older women and women with disabilities, their dependency and isolation are exploited by perpetrators, which increases their vulnerability to abuse. Dr Amin advocates for services that are sensitive to their needs, and that identify appropriate contacts through health and care systems, ensuring that all women experiencing violence receive empathetic, survivor-centred care.

To improve the current understanding and data on violence against these groups, WHO recommends several measures. Notably, they suggest extending the age limit for survey participation to include older women and incorporating questions that cover a broader spectrum of disabilities and types of violence. The briefs, titled ‘Measuring violence against older women’ and ‘Measuring violence against women with disability,’ highlight the necessity of engaging older women and women with disabilities, as well as their representative organisations, in all stages of survey design and implementation. This approach ensures that the surveys are not only appropriate but also user-friendly, with formats like Braille or EasyRead enhancing accessibility for all.

In summary, the WHO’s call to action is clear: to effectively combat violence against women, particularly those who are older or with disabilities, it is imperative to close the data gaps and foster an environment of inclusivity and understanding. Only then can we hope to develop and implement programs that truly address the specific needs of these often-marginalised groups.

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