Monday 4 November 2013

The Stop the Violence Project’s National Symposium, Violence prevention and response for women and girls with disabilities, was held at the Commission offices on Friday October 25. Karin Swift is President of Women With Disabilities Australia and was Mc of the symposium. In this installment of PodRights she joins Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, to discuss the Stop the Violence Project, prevalence, the experience of the women involved and the aims of the symposium.


Graeme Innes: Hello, and welcome to Pod Rights, a series of podcasts from the Australian Human Rights Commission.  I'm Graeme Innes, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner.  Australia women and girls with disabilities are twice as likely as women and girls without disabilities, to experience violence throughout their lives.  Women with disabilities are 20 per cent of the female population, and over one-third experience some form of intimate partner violence during their lives.  Despite this evidence though, women and girls with disabilities are often not included in consultation on this issue and they're often not included in structural changes in service systems to stop this violence occurring. 

This is a very concerning issue, and a couple of weeks ago the Commission hosted a symposium to discuss it.  With me to talk about that symposium, and the broader issue, is Karen Swift.  Karen is the Chair of Women with Disability Australia.  Karen has been a long-time advocate on disability issues and has worked in community and government settings in tertiary education, women's issues, disability issues, housing issues, mental health and in futures planning.  So, welcome to Pod Rights Karen.

Karin Swift: Thank you Graeme.  Thank you for that welcome.  I'm happy to be here today.

Graeme Innes: Great.  Well, tell us about, firstly, the Stop the Violence Project.  What is it and how did it come about?

Karin Swift: Well the Stop the Violence Project, or STVP, as we like to call it is a national project on violence and women and girls with disabilities.  Basically, we have a long-standing commitment to address this very pressing issue on behalf of our membership of volunteers for [girl's] with disabilities.  So the project is national in scope, and it tended to be laying the groundwork for improved service provision by building the evidence base for future reports.  So we're really quite excited about it Graeme.  As it is something that at a national scope has never been done before. 

It really has been quite a lot of work to pull it together.  Because there's quite a lot of differences and things that happen with both domestic and family violence policies nationally.  Every State and Territory has a different approach.  [Unclear] basically investigate the correct ways to support better practice and then evidence based support systems.

Graeme Innes: Who's involved in the project Karen?

Karin Swift: What did you say?

Graeme Innes: Who's involved in the project?

Karin Swift: Well the project is headed by  WWDA but we have other people that we've contracted to help us run the project.  So our two other partners are the University of New South Wales and People with Disabilities Australia.

Graeme Innes: WDDA of course stands for Women with Disabilities Australia, I don't think I…

Karin Swift: That's right, yeah.

Graeme Innes: So, you're leading the project but you've drawn in people from the University of New South Wales and People with Disabilities Australia?

Karin Swift: That's correct.

Graeme Innes: So, what's your involvement personally in the project Karen, as president of WWDA?

Karin Swift: Well, I've actually had a long-standing commitment to the project - not just the project - but the issue of violence against women and girls with disabilities.  That stems from my own interests, back in the 90s when I was on a State government board here in Queensland.  I'm from Brisbane, and I was on a board around women and the law.  One of the issues that I was pushing there was around violence against women with disabilities and getting them included in domestic violence legislation.  So that's a bit about my personal background. 

It's just that being the president, I've gotten to do some wonderful things in relation to the project.  For example, coming and seeing the lovely Cristina Ricci  from the AHRC, the national symposium last week that you held.  Also I've been part of the expert advisory group, it's called on from time to time to provide advice on specific issues related to violence against women.  Also, as part of the WWDA board, I have governing responsibilities around the direction of the organisation.  This project is obviously a major piece of work at the moment.

Graeme Innes: So the project is funded through the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children.  How does it fit in under that plan, Karen?

Karin Swift: Sure, well, as you say, it's part of the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children, which is a 12-year national plan, from 2010 to 2022.  That's part of the Commonwealth States and Territory government's commitment to better understand and build an evidence base to help them improve the quality of services.  But it has a number of work plans over that span of time.  So, and that comes out of recommendations from [CEDOR].  All of the projects have been funded to support this and I guess we're one of those projects that targets a specific interest group. 

So, basically, we're wanting to look at how women and girls experiencing, or at risk of experiencing family violence, can be better supported.  We do this by seeking to identify structural issues, which may impact on women and girls with disability who experience violence and access to services, as well as addressing the capacity for services to respond effectively.

Graeme Innes: Okay, so let's talk about this violence issue and the actual violence itself.  What do we know about women with disability who are experiencing violence?  Where's it happening, who are the perpetrators and how prevalent is it?

Karin Swift: That's a really, really big issue Graeme.  It's quite endemic.  We know that we as women with disabilities may experience many of the same forms of violence that all women experience.  But there's an issue where gender and disability intersect, that violence has unique causes and takes a unique form.  We experience forms of violence that are particular to our social disadvantage and our cultural status and devaluation and increase dependency on others.  So, also you've got things like poverty, race, ethnicity, language and other identity statuses that come into play there. 

We experience violence at higher rates, often more frequently and for longer, and in more ways.  Also, as you were alluding to before by more perpetrators, like for example, formal and informal support people.  Unfortunately policies, programs and services either don't exist or they're extremely limited.  So, that does exclude us.

Graeme Innes: How do we know that the levels of violence are greater and that women experience it for longer, Karen?  Where do we draw this information from?

Karin Swift: Basically, what the research tells us Graeme, what we've been able to do some research and it is scant, but there is evidence out there to suggest that we experience alarmingly higher rates of multiple forms of violence.  So [unclear] of perpetrators, including physical, psychological, sexual violence, financial abuse, neglect and social isolation.  Things like entrapment, degradation, even things like trafficking, detention.  Then you get into things like forced sterilisation and psychiatric treatment, forced contraception, forced abortions, denial of health care that sort of thing. 

So apparently, we're twice as likely to experience domestic and family violence as non-disabled women are and we're likely to experience this violence over a longer period of time. 

[Over speaking]

Graeme Innes: Is this from talking…

Karin Swift: Seventy per cent of us have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some times in our lives.  More than a quarter of rape cases reported by females in Australia are perpetrated against women with disabilities.  So it's estimated about between 50 and 70 per cent of women with psychosocial disabilities in Australia experience violence, physical and sexual abuse.  That includes child [unclear] as well.  A recent Victorian study found that 45 per cent of women in psyche hospitals have been sexually assaulted, with 67 per cent of those having been sexually harassed and 85 per cent feeling unsafe.

So they're quite alarming statistics.  I guess because many women and girls with disabilities live in institutions they're at significant risk of violence because of those closed systems that I think sit outside of public scrutiny.  For many women it's just a day-to-day reality of their lives and it's really quite sad.

Graeme Innes: Well it is, and we heard some stories about that at the symposium.  But let me come to those.  I want to ask you another question because you started to talk at the beginning of that answer about the fact that services weren't available, or weren't as available, perhaps would be a fairer way to express it.  So, how are we dealing with this in Australia?  What action is being taken?  Are services being delivered to women with disabilities to the same level as to other women?

Karin Swift: [On those things we] tend to miss out and that's because of a lot of structural issues and also mainly because there's a lot of troubles in  thinking because it's assumed that because of our everyday circumstance that women with disabilities aren't part of normal relationships in society.  Therefore, it's not actually thought about what would happen if a women with disability was involved in a family or domestic violence situation.  So, typically those [unclear] levels tends to exclude us.  But from a bigger point of view, although Australia is a member state of the United Nations, and is signatory to seven core international treaties with several other instruments, it's clear that Australian fail ensure that women and girls with disabilities benefit from these provisions of [unclear].

That starts out at a very basic level of that service provision level that I was just talking about.  But even more basic than that, is the actual women with disabilities themselves identifying and recognising the violence in their lives is actually happening, or is a problem.  Or even if a client remains a significant issue and often, as I was alluding to before, those who seeks support often find themselves on a sort of roundabout without ever finding a pathway to safety. 

Another issue in that regard Graeme is that we lack the access to legal protection and law enforcement officials.  The legal community are ill equipped to address violence, and that's any kind of violence, whether it be family violence or violence or disputes that occur in group homes and institutions.  Often those outside parties just don't want to know.  They just see it as an issue to be dealt with at a service provider level and our testimonies are often not viewed as credible by the court.  We're not privy to the same information available to women without disabilities.  So, I guess the lack of [highly] accessible and affordable services and programs and support is also a major factor.

Graeme Innes: So, Karen what was the main objective…

[Over speaking]

Karin Swift: …violence I guess against us.

Graeme Innes: Yeah, so Karen, what was the main objective of the symposium that was held at the commission?

Karin Swift: Well, thanks for mentioning that symposium Graeme.  Firstly, before we go into that, I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank you and AHRC for hosting the important symposium.  So I guess the symposium on violence against women and girls with disabilities had a number of aims.  I might just go through those now and they were to basically raise awareness of the issue.  So violence against women and girls with disabilities, and to foster an understanding of that issue within a Human Rights framework.  To engage clients and stakeholders and decision makers in moving forward to address violence against women with disabilities.

Also, to foster collaborative approaches to things like policy development and service provision by strengthening a cross-sectional relationships that leading - sustaining change in the identification and implementation of better classes and identifying methods for longer term sustainability to addressing violence against women and girls with disabilities.  I guess you can it was sort of setting the scene for the context of the problem.

Graeme Innes: Where to from here Karen, now that the symposium's taken place?  What's the next steps?

Karin Swift: There's a few trends I think, Graeme, that came out of the day on Friday.  An alarming theme that emerged from what the participants had to say, and the feedback from a lot of the group processes was that the evidence there was a violence against women with disabilities in institutions and those closed systems.  I guess from a funding point of view a limitation of the project was that we weren't able to focus specifically on that area.  The national plan doesn't recognise that type of violence.  I mean that in itself speaks volumes about the lack of understanding on the overall context of how violence affects women and girls with disabilities. 

So, from our end it would be good to see any enquiry initiated into violence against people with disabilities in institutions and closed systems, like group homes and so forth.  We'll be calling on government to address this issue.  It's also about in keeping with UN recommendations from the convention of the rights of people with disability, and the convention of the elimination of discrimination against women. 

Now that we have the evidence base, which is what this project and symposium went out to identify.  What we're looking for now is to see that this is a priority that is taken up with the next stage of the national plan of action.  To emphasis the issue of violence against women and girls with disabilities, and make sure that that's prioritised and funded appropriately, particularly drawing on our recommendations.  The project now is focused on writing up the outcomes of the symposium, which contain the key recommendations.  We hope to have that out publically very shortly.

Graeme Innes: Okay.  Well they'll be available, and they'll be a very useful resource.  It's been great to talk to you about this, Karen.  Obviously, we'll talk more about this issue as the work progresses.  I think the other thing that you probably didn't get a chance to talk about in the time that we've got is some of the stories that came from the symposium.  Hopefully, and I've been doing some writing on this, there will be a piece on ABC Ramp Up setting out just two or three of those stories which I found quite shocking and quite disturbing.

Karin Swift: That's exactly right, and I think that was the real strength of the symposium was that it was really grounded in the lived experience of women with disabilities.

Graeme Innes: That's a very important part of the process, and certainly on the day that was very important.  So, thanks for the opportunity to talk with you Karen.

Karin Swift: Thank you so much Graeme, it's been wonderful.

Graeme Innes: Thanks to all of you listening to Pod Rights, remember this podcast is for you.  So if you have a suggestion of someone with whom I should talk, or a comment on the podcast, please email me at, or find me and message me on Facebook or Twitter.  Just search for Graeme Innes, and keep your pod catchers ready for the next Pod Rights in the series, because human rights are for everyone, everywhere, every day.

I'm Graeme Innes, good-bye for now. 

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