Saheli project: “Empowering Women with Disabilities in Pakistan to Combat Gender-Based Violence”

Women with disabilities face dual marginalization all across the world due to their gender and disability. In this regard, their economic empowerment is halted because of various environmental and attitudinal barriers that come along the way. heir daily life challenges are increased tenfold when women with disabilities are reliant on their family, partners, or caregivers for support in monetary terms.

In order to cater to these challenges NOWPDP has launched a Saheli project where a few selected women with disabilities will be trained to become community leaders and influencers and will play a major role in devising our female outreach interventions after taking the needs and challenges of WWDs into account. These Sahelis will act as a bridge between the NOWPDP and WWDs in order to engage them for its employment programs. These Sahelis also act as confidants of the women with disabilities community.

One in every three women is subjected to violence across the globe as per the World Health Organization. This may include physical or sexual violence from intimate partners or other members of society. As shocking as this figure might sound, it is horrifying to note that this average is calculated holistically keeping the entire women's community into consideration.

Women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence as they are more vulnerable due to their disability and gender, and might also rely on their abuser for care-taking. Due to the isolated state of life of most women with disabilities, the majority of the time the perpetrator is someone they know.

Keeping this in mind, in collaboration with UN WOMEN, we decided to conduct one-on-one surveys with WWDs regarding their experiences of abuse and violence throughout their lives. Conducting these surveys was very difficult as the participants were mostly oblivious to the concept of GBV, the rest were just hesitant to talk about it. To further assess the understanding of WWDs regarding violence, we planned 2 sessions of focus group discussions (10 participants each).

After obtaining abundant data from our focus group discussions on gender-based violence, we obtained better clarity as to the knowledge-wise standing of women with disabilities regarding GBV and its legislation practices in Pakistan. We utilized the same data to design a training module that was later used in our master training session held at NOWPDP premises.

This master training was conducted among 8 participants (6 being women with disabilities) who would later train at least 10 each in order to expand the impact of the project. Lawyers were engaged to verify the section regarding laws in the training content. A lawyer was also present on the ground to facilitate any queries coming from the master trainers.

7 of our master trainers successfully conducted training sessions in different localities. Partner organizations were involved and training was also expanded to remote areas (Memon Goth, Sujawal, etc). In total, 94 women with disabilities were trained (49 physical, 26 hearing and speech, 19 visual).

Verbal consent was obtained prior to each session and a pre-training survey questionnaire was filled out by each trainee. These survey questionnaires as well as the training content had been translated into local languages to make training comprehensible and accessible for all.

Since our FGD findings depicted that WWDs have baseline knowledge regarding GBV and little to no awareness regarding laws and reporting mechanisms, the aim was to create awareness, encourage responses, and open a link between NOWPDP and women with disabilities. In the long term, this should also increase the cases reported as more women would be able to identify violence and know the right avenues to seek support.

One of our trainers with a visual disability had created notes in braille script to facilitate the training. Since braille script takes a lot of time and effort, it can be assessed how sincere and devoted our master trainers were towards delivering the training content.

As the flow of the training sessions progressed, we were at the receiving end of horrifying stories regarding instances of violence coming from the trainees. It was shocking and personally upsetting to note that almost everyone had undergone some form of abuse throughout their lives.

A training session conducted at one of our partner organizations brought forward some interesting findings. Out of the 28 attendees over there, only two were married and also later divorced. The reasons for their divorces were also noted to be their disability. One of them got divorced after her disability had increased post the birth of her child. The other was a polio affectee whose husband thought he couldn't survive with a PWD soon after marriage.

One of the participants was seen to be unusually quiet during our in-house training session with deaf women. At one point nearing the end of the session, she broke down. Even after this episode, she was unwilling to talk about what was on her mind. However, upon comforting her, she finally spoke about her life at home. She had been living in captivity for most of her married life. She had also undergone multiple abortions just because her husband didn't want children yet. None of these abortions were consensual. She was offered food once or twice a day even though she was responsible to cook for everyone as well as doing other house chores. Even after fulfilling all of these tasks, she was subject to physical and emotional violence from her in-laws and husband. She was unwilling to seek support as there was nowhere she could go if she leaves her husband. Cases like these are an eye-opener because thousands of women are unable to seek help due to a lack of support from family and the inaccessibility of institutions.

A challenge that we encountered was that women with hearing and speech disabilities were finding it difficult to grasp the signs related to abuse, violence, etc. This signifies that they might not have been taught these signs to begin with due to the stigma associated with GBV.

Most women were witnessed to be in a state of confusion after learning about their fundamental human rights and the fact that they were being violated by their own families, intimate partners, etc. Even so, the environment created by the trainers and other participants was very welcoming and supportive. The women felt immediate relief after voicing out their respective stories.

Post-training survey forms were distributed among the participants after the session after which they were released to leave. It is critical to note that all the helplines for support do not offer video calling services which is why they are inaccessible for women using sign language. We had assisted multiple participants with seeking support due to this very reason.

As per our record, 38% of the participants were aware of what the term GBV meant before attending the session. After the session, this figure successfully increased to a whopping 98%. As intended, these training sessions should take a trickle-down effect and reach more people. If every trainee extends their new-found knowledge to another 10 women, a total of 940 women can be trained.