One of the most historic events of the past year is the extraordinary awakening of solidary among women across the globe on the issues of sexual harassment and assault, a realization of how the problem has been normalized and overlooked.
As famous figures in the west, particularly the United States, have begun showing support, spoken about the issue and later actively engaged in the #Timesup and #Metoo movements, there has been an escalating demand for long-overdue justice for the victims.
It is not an issue, however, that is unique to the west, nor is it exclusive to only certain women in certain countries. Nor is Indonesia free from such harassment. I can say for sure one thing that the movement has attracted global attention is because we women, regardless of our professions, religion, or ethnicity, identify the victims. How, by whom, and why it happens is borderless. And no matter how hard people try to silence the victims or undermine the movement, a rising number of women share the darkest truth, attempting to expose the uglier face of the world we live in today.
In 2016, according to a nationwide poll by the organization Lentera Sintas concluded that 90 percent of rapes in the country go unreported. Some 58 percent of respondents, according to Reuters – mostly women but also men and transgenders – said they had experienced verbal sexual harassment. Some 25 percent said they had been groped, physically assaulted or kissed without their consent.
And the more I talk openly about it, the more my heart is broken – knowing that not just one or two, but many people close to me are coming out to share their personal experience. I was shocked at how saddening and traumatic their stories are, how lonely, reserved and broken they have become.
There is one particular story that stands out for me and one that I feel the need to be listened to more closely. It involves the disabled, who, according to one study, face far more physical harassment than the physically whole.
One night, a 23-year-old woman we will call only Sarah had just finished tidying up the papers on her desk, preparing to go home. She was tired, remembering she still had to write a report on her apprenticeship as an editorial assistant in a publishing office. She was about to press the elevator’s button down when a voice called her name. It was her supervisor, telling her to go to his office – there was still a document she had to check he said.
If only that had been true. All she could remember was the moment when she pleaded and shed tears for her dignity and honor. That failed and fear and disbelief have surrounded her world ever since. The sexual attack happened so fast, she said, yet it felt like an enduring nightmare.
When Sarah came to work the next day, her coworkers had no idea what had happened to her. Carrying on as usual, her colleagues didn’t notice her trembling hands, unfocused eyes and her fragility. She is on the verge of a meltdown, she said, as if the slightest touch could can make her collapse.
With what happened to Sarah, now imagine that she is disabled. In fact, she has been mute since birth. To communicate, she mainly uses sign language or gestures. Working as a writer and an assistant suits her. It does not require much talking because her task is heavily focused on editing, largely a solitary task. She is an introvert and she has befriended few in her office, , making it more difficult for her to share the pain or report the attack.
When I shared her story and asked others if they knew someone with disability who also experienced the same thing, most of my friends answered in the negative. Yes, they say, they are aware that sexual harassment and assault are likely to happen to people who exhibit vulnerabilities.
And people with disabilities, as catalogued in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), are victimized at higher rates than the rest of the population. However, my colleagues say, they have never come across such a story first-hand. And this is the core concern of what happens in our society.
In America, for example, people with disabilities are among those who are among the highest number of sexual abuse victims, although it is barely talked about, nor does the gravity of the worsening situation receive public attention. In other countries, the situation is likely the same, if not worse.
If Sarah belonged to a less-burdened segment of society, her case might have been believed and heard better.
Why Disabled Are Being Targeted?
Globally, women more than men overwhelmingly experience greater risk of sexual violence. In fact, one in five women are vulnerable to rape or attempted rape over their lifespan. And the situation is even more repugnant for people with disabilities. Being marginalized, discriminated against, and usually defenseless, these minorities are seven times more likely to be the victims of sexual assaults than their non-disabled counterparts.
The heightened liability of sexual victimization is in conjunction with vulnerability, with those whose life depends on the care and support of others most likely to experience sexual assault. As abusers are adept at detecting vulnerability, people with disabilities face greater risk of being sexually harassed. A government study highlighted that women with intellectual, complex communication, and psychiatric disabilities are the most vulnerable.
Both parties engaging in sexual activity must provide consent. However, it can be complicated to understand receptivity or the lack lack of it from the disabled. Some may have difficulty to communicate refusal, those in a vegetative state don’t even realize they are being assaulted, and others may also not be given the same education about consent or they don’t have the ability to understand what is happening. The lack of education and information leave the disabled community more liable to assault.
For people with limited mobility, for example, since they may heavily rely on care from others, it is especially challenging for them to differentiate the types of touching that may be casual and what may not be. They may genuinely not realize the care is inappropriate. Thus the abusers, in many instances, are caretakers close enough with the victim and familiar with the condition. Therefore, it is even harder for someone else to raise suspicion and question the standards of care.
When reporting a sexual assault, their circumstances often mean their claims are taken less seriously. In the case of Sarah above, she has no idea to deal with the assault, who she has to ask for help, how to speak up, or whether authorities will listen and believe her story. Accessing services also can be quite challenging for people like Sarah and others who are visually or hearing-impaired. Often because the disabled look and do things differently, people are quick to question their credibility, making it hard for the victims to come forward. And so for all these reasons, the perpetrators may take advantage of the complications to their favor.
What should we change?
Currently, there are not enough avenues for the disabled to report abuse where they feel they will be believed. If they are under-represented or mistreated when coming forward, they need advocates on their behalf. Rather than doubting their claims, they need a foundation of support and safety. Sexual harassment should no longer be normalized misdemeanor. It is a serious crime and should be treated and prosecuted as such.
Dikanaya Tarahita is an Indonesian freelance writer who wrote this story with help from Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat, a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester. They are regular contributors to Asia Sentinel