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Violence against women with a disability in rural Australia

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Violence against women with a disability in rural Australia

Side Event - Rural Women and Girls with Disabilities: Economic Empowerment & political participation
Commission on the Status of Women, 56th Session
United Nations Headquarters, New York, Conference Room 6 - North Lawn Building

Elizabeth Broderick

Sex Discrimination Commissioner

28 February 2012


Good afternoon distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is my great pleasure to be speaking at this side event as a representative of the Australian Government Delegation to the UN Commission on Status of Women 56th session.

Let me start with a story.  It's the story that Stella Young, a young disability rights advocate tells about her own experience.

When Stella was a young girl she was on holidays with her parents.  She broke her leg and her parents took her to hospital.  The doctors reset her leg and then one of them said to Stella's parents ‘well we might as well do the hysterectomy while she's here’.[1]  This was particularly shocking because Stella was only 4 years old.  As she says thankfully her parents picked her up from hospital that day.  But this is one of the issues still faced by some women with a disability not just in Australia but across the world. 

As the other panellists will share today, women and girls with a disability face considerable discrimination and violence across all the regions of the world. Women and girls with a disability who are living in rural areas can face considerable hardships.

In Australia, 9.5% of the total Australian population are women and girls with a disability.[2]

31% of the Australian population live in rural areas and almost 700,000 women and girls with a disability live in rural and remote Australia.[3]

There are numerous barriers that women with a disability in rural areas face. For example, in Australia people with a disability are half as likely to be employed as people without disability;[4] and more likely to be living in poverty.[5] More specifically, the labour force participation rate of women with disability is 49%, well below the 60% participation rate of males with disability and the 77% participation rate of women without disability.[6] Forty-five per cent of people with a disability in Australia live in or near poverty, more than double the OECD average of 22%.[7]

Out of the many issues that arise I will focus on two: Firstly, violence against women and girls with a disability; and secondly, the lack of access to services to address violence.

Women and girls with a disability are vulnerable to many forms of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, as well as to violence committed against them in institutional settings, and other forms of violence including forced sterilisation and abortions.

The Australian Human Rights Commission and other organisations, including Women with Disabilities Australia, has previously noted[8] the lack of research and robust data on violence against women and girls with disabilities in Australia.[9] The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) does not currently report data specifically on violence against women and girls with disabilities.[10] For example, the ABS Gender Indicators, Australia, provide no disaggregated data on violence against women with disabilities.[11]

Similarly, it is difficult to find data on the number of forced sterilisations of women and girls with a disability. While there are some mechanisms in place to ensure against forced sterilisations,[12] there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that mechanisms are not working adequately to protect women and girls with a disability from forced non-therapeutic sterilisations and unlawful sterilisations continue within Australia.[13] 

In 2010 the CEDAW Committee recommended that Australia address, as a matter of priority, the abuse and violence experienced by women with disabilities living in institutions or supported accommodation and recommended that the State party enact national legislation prohibiting, except where there is a serious threat to life or health, the use of sterilisation of girls, regardless of whether they have a disability, and of adult women with disabilities in the absence of their fully informed and free consent.[14]

At Australia’s Universal Periodic Review in January 2011, a number of countries called for the implementation of a national plan to combat violence against women, and for the prohibition of non-therapeutic sterilisation of women and girls with a disability.[15] The Australian Government in its response to the Universal Periodic Review recommendations on sterilisation committed to initiate further discussions with its State and Territory counterparts.

The Australian Government also launched the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2020 on 15 February 2011. The plan adopts a holistic view to addressing domestic violence and sexual assault and has a strong focus on prevention. Some of the actions the plan proposes to address violence against women with disabilities include:

  • Investigating and promoting ways to improve access and responses to domestic violence sexual assault services for women with disabilities.
  • Supporting better service delivery for women and children with disabilities 
  • Improving access to justice for women and children with disabilities who have been victims of violence.
  • Providing grants for primary prevention programs to organisations who work with women with disabilities.
  • Fostering respectful relationships in a range of settings, including targeting vulnerable young people with intellectual disability.[16]

At the moment the Plan does not include actions to address other forms of violence experienced by women and girls with a disability (for example forced sterilisation and abortion; and exploitation, neglect or violence in institutional settings).

The Australian Law Reform Commission recently recommended that a common definition of family violence be inserted into all relevant Commonwealth laws a definition that includes: conduct that is violent, threatening, coercive and controlling, or intended to cause a family member to be fearful; and a non-exhaustive list of examples of physical and non-physical conduct.[17] In such a definition, types of family violence experienced by people with a disability may include: forced sterilisation and abortion; specific types of abuse related to their disability such as withholding equipment, food and medication; and financial exploitation.

In addition to the issue of violence, there second issue I want to briefly address is that there are insufficient specific services to address violence against women and girls with disabilities and to address harmful practices that can result in disabilities.  This is particularly so in rural areas.

The Australian Productivity Commission has noted that the ‘[c]urrent disability support arrangements are inequitable, underfunded, fragmented, and inefficient and give people with a disability little choice’.[18] The Productivity Commission noted that inadequate services hit certain communities particularly hard, noting especially people living in regional and remote areas, people from a non-English speaking background and women with disabilities.

However, I am pleased to be able to say that while these issues are critical, we have seen some positive developments emerge to address these issues. The Australian Government, in addition to having ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008, also developed a new National Disability Agreement, which commenced in 2009 to improve and expand services for people with disability, their families and carers.[19]

In 2009-2010, almost 300,000 people used services – for respite, employment, accommodation support, community support and community access, provided under the National Disability Agreement, which accounted for nearly $5.8 billion dollars of combined government expenditures.[20] 

The Australian Government has also developed a National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 that identified the development of strategies be developed to reduce violence, abuse and neglect of people with a disability, as an area of action. The first implementation plan for the strategy is currently being developed and we await the release of the plan and announcement of strategies in this regard.[21]

I would also like to note a very positive development in Australia, which is the commitment to create a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).[22] The Australian Government is currently working with the state and territory governments on the key design issues for the NDIS. The NDIS has the potential to transform the way services are funded and delivered in rural areas, ensuring women and girls with significant and ongoing disability are better supported and have greater choice and control.

To conclude, the silence and the invisibility of the violence faced by women and girls with a disability has continued for too long. It is essential that we talk about these issues and bring them to the forefront. This requires us to collect reliable data on these issues.  We must also put in place comprehensive services to assist women and girls with a disability in Australia. 

But most importantly, it is vital that the abuse and violence experienced by women with disabilities, including women and girls with disability living in institutions or supported accommodation, be stopped; and especially that forced sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities be clearly prohibited. To do otherwise would be to deny women like Stella their fundamental human rights.

Thank you,


[1] Stella Young in ABC PM Radio, ‘Concerns over sterilisation of girls with disabilities’, Transcript, 14 February 2012. At http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3430739.htm (viewed 15 March 20120.
[2] Figures calculated from Australian Bureau of Statistics data used for Disability, Australia, 2009 (cat.  no. 4446.0). See Table 1.1 – ALL PERSONS, disability status by age and sex – 2009, available at    http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4446.02009?OpenDocument. Full report: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Disability, Australia, 2009 (cat. no. 4446.0; latest issue released 2011). At
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4446.0main+features42009 (viewed 15 March 2012)
[3] Figures calculated from Australian Bureau of Statistics data used for Disability, Australia, 2009 (cat.  no. 4446.0). See Table 1.3: ALL PERSONS, Disability rates by sex, state or territory, remoteness and country of birth - 2009, available at    http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4446.02009?OpenDocument. For the purposes of calculating figures for this paper, ‘rural areas’ was defined as including people living in ‘Inner regional’ and ‘Other’ areas under the main heading ‘Remoteness’. Full report: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Disability, Australia, 2009 (cat.  no. 4446.0; latest issue released 2011). At
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4446.0main+features42009 (viewed 15 March 2012)
[4] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Sickness, Disability and Work: Breaking the Barriers – A Synthesis of Findings across OECD Countries (2010). See http://www.oecd.org/LongAbstract/0,3425,en_2649_33927_46502382_1_1_1_1,00.html(viewed 22 March 2012). 
[5] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Sickness, Disability and Work: Keeping on track in the economic downturn – Background paper (2009). Available at www.oecd.org/dataoecd/42/15/42699911.pdf (viewed 22 March 2012).
[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4446.0 Disability Australia, 2009 (latest issue released 2011). At
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4446.0main+features42009 (viewed 15 March 2012) .
[7] PricewaterhouseCoopers, Disability expectations: Investing in a better life, a stronger Australia (2011), p9. At http://www.pwc.com.au/industry/government/publications/disability-in-australia.htm (viewed 22 March 2012).
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, Response to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Questionnaire for the Preparation of the Analytical Study on Violence Against Women and Girls and Disability (2011), p2.
[9] K Howe, Violence Against Women with Disabilities - An Overview of the Literature (2000). At http://www.wwda.org.au/keran.htm(viewed 15 March 2012).
[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics Website. At http://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/c311215.nsf/web/Gender (viewed 15 March 2012).
[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4125.0 Gender Indicators, Australia (2011). At http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/4125.0 (viewed 15 March 2012).
[12] The legal framework regulating sterilisation of children in Australia was set out by the High Court of Australia in the case of Secretary of the Department of Health and Community Services v JWB and SMB (1992) ALJR 300 (Marion's Case). It was held in that case that:

  • court or tribunal authority is required before any child can lawfully be sterilised unless the sterilisation occurs as a by-product of surgery appropriately carried out to treat some malfunction or disease; and
  • authorisation may be given only if sterilisation is in the child's best interests after alternative and less invasive procedures have all failed or it is certain that no other procedure or treatment will work.

Each state and territory in Australia has different laws about who is authorised to make decisions as per Marion’s case.  In some jurisdictions the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Magistrates Court have exclusive jurisdictions to decide on sterilisation matters while in other jurisdictions, the respective guardianship tribunal or board also has jurisdiction to determine sterilisation matters .    

The Australian Guardianship and Administration Council has produced a protocol to assist various Australian guardianship tribunals in exercising power regarding sterilisation, and to promote consistency across the jurisdictions when dealing with an application for the sterilisation of a person.  According to this protocol, the Tribunal hearing a sterilisation matter must follow principles based on human rights, maximum participation, minimal limitations, the expressed wishes of the person to be considered, encouragement of self-reliance and self-management, the least restrictive alternatives, maintenance of existing supportive relationships, and the maintenance of cultural environment and values. 
[13]See for example, S Brady and Dr S Grover, The Sterilisation of Girls and Young Women in Australia: A legal, medical and social context (1997). At http://www.hreoc.gov.au/disability_rights/hr_disab/sterilization/sterilization.html (viewed 15 March 2012); and Women with Disabilities Australia, Sterilisation of Women and Girls with Disabilities - An update on the issue in Australia (2011). At wwda.org.au/sterilisationsynopsisDec2010.pdf(viewed 15 March 2012).
[14] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Concluding Observations Australia (2010), UN Doc CEDAW/C/AUL/CO/7 para 43. At http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/cedaws46.htm (viewed 15 March 2012).
[15] United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review – Australia (2011), Para 86.39. At http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/PAGES/AUSession10.aspx (viewed 15 March 2012). Recommendation 39 put forward by Denmark, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.The treaty bodies for ICESCR and CRC have similarly noted in their concluding observations on Australia that the regulation of the practice of sterilisation as a breach of  human rights.
[16] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their children 2010-2022 (2011). At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/women/progserv/violence/nationalplan/Pages/default.aspx (viewed 15 March 2012).
[17] Australian Law Reform Commission, Family Violence and Commonwealth Laws - Improving Legal Frameworks (2012), http://www.alrc.gov.au/publications/family-violence-and-commonwealth-laws-improving-legal-frameworks-alrc-report-117 (viewed 15 March 2012).
[18] Productivity Commission, Disability Care and Support, Productivity Commission Inquiry Report (2011), p5. At http://www.pc.gov.au/projects/inquiry/disability-support/report (viewed 15 March 2012).
[19] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, National Disability Agreement (2009). At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/disability/progserv/govtint/Pages/policy-disability_agreement.aspx (viewed 15 March 2012).
[20] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Disability support services 2009-10: report on services provided under the National Disability Agreement (2011). At http://www.aihw.gov.au/publication-detail/?id=10737420186&tab=2 (viewed 15 March 2012).
[21] Council of Australian Governments, National Disability Strategy 2010-2020 (2011). At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/about/news/2011/Pages/nds.aspx (viewed 15 March 2012).
[22] National Disability Insurance Scheme Website. At http://www.ndis.gov.au/.

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