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How disabled women in Belgium are being taught to say no to violence

No Means No campaign preventing violence against women with disabilities
17:42 07/03/2022
To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, The Bulletin talks to Brussels NGO Garance about its work empowering women living with disability

When the coronavirus pandemic sparked a rise in domestic violence, campaigns were launched to offer women and children shelter and support during lockdown. But primary prevention was overlooked, points out Irene Zeilinger, founder and director of Garance, a Brussels-based organisation specialised in training women in self-defence.

The non-profit is one of the first recipients of a grant by the Alliance for Gender Equality (AGE) in Europe, a collaboration between Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), the Chanel Foundation and L’Oréal Fund for Women, which is targeting misogynist violence.

Garance has long focused on a global approach to prevention that takes into account the whole continuum of violence from micro aggression to feminicide. “We have a broader range of tools to propose how to stop violence, such as identifying situations before they turn violent. It’s a lot about personal boundaries and increasing self-confidence.”

An injection of over €40,000 in cash by the AGE will specifically help fund Garance’s self-defence workshops for women with disabilities across French-speaking Belgium. In a new approach, it also offers peer training so that women with learning disabilities will themselves become trainers in prevention strategies against violence.

The reality of living a life of mockery, abuse and discrimination is movingly described in an article about the Garance project, published by KBF, Belgium’s leading philanthropy institution.

The pandemic increased the vulnerability of women with disabilities

Although the programme was launched in 2018, it had to be put on hold during the pandemic. This worsened the situation for one of society’s most vulnerable groups, explains sociologist and self-defence trainer Zeilinger. 

“Women with disabilities in Belgium often live in institutions or with their families. In the first lockdown, personal assistance was declared a non-essential service and it was difficult to reach out to them. As they became more dependent and isolated, the potential for violence increased,” she says.

Although research has yet to be conducted on the effect of successive periods of confinement, anecdotal evidence highlights a rise in violence, while Covid measures weren’t adapted to the needs of the disabled community. “An activist friend had to advocate for more than a month to get the Covid consultative committee’s information sessions translated into sign language,” recalls Zeilinger.

The new programme of workshops will start in April and the funding is broadening the range of training courses on offer. Pointing out that people with disability represent 15-20% of the population, Zeilinger outlines some of the specific challenges that women face.

Speaking out about violence risks losing support

“For women who are deaf or hard of hearing, if they experience violence from their partner, it’s difficult for them to reach out for support because the deaf community is very close-knit. They risk discrimination on the outside and losing support from their community,” she says. 

Women with learning disabilities have often been denied access to sex education, which only increases their vulnerability. “A whole generation of women do not know how to talk about their bodies and their desires,” says Zeilinger. “There’s a long history of institutions prohibiting sexuality because it was too complicated for them to manage.”

The lack of resources means that when there’s sexual abuse, it’s not always possible to move the perpetrator to another institution. She cites an example of a woman raped by someone living in the same centre, yet obliged to be in contact with him every day.

For women with physical disabilities, “if they are dependent on their violent partner for their mobility, how can they access services?”, asks Zeilinger. Assistance can be a pretext for violence, she says. “It’s a vast problem where you see sexism and ableism magnify each other.”

Visually-impaired women are similarly confronted with the problem of accessing information and services. Zeilinger recounts the experience of a blind woman who was walking to a class when she felt that she was being followed in the street. “Of course, she couldn’t see who it was and when it became clear that someone was following her, she turned around and told the person to go away. When there was no answer,  she called the people at the class and asked them to look out of the window. The person heard her and they went away.”

Among the common factors to the abuse is a systemic lack of funding in the disability sector. In addition, many professionals in victim support, including the police, do not possess the necessary training, says Zeilinger.

The other issue is that disabled women have a long history of not having their needs being taken into account. “It’s very complicated for them to speak out about violence because it can mean losing vital support,” she adds, pointing out that abuse can also stem from strangers. “People offering to help a blind person across the street can steal their wallet.”

Learning to say no

But learning to say no and taking action against violence underpins the prevention strategies taught by Garance. “It goes completely against the grain of mainstream messages about disability and gender as well as many of their experiences.”

“We focus on your options: what can you do, how can you leave the situation, how can you can get help from other people, how can you destabilise the other person so that they do not know what to do?”, explains Zeilinger.

When it comes to the physical component of self-defence, the training explores how to counteract the mainstream image of disability. “This means being effective with your body; it’s an important point of discovery for each participant, from looking menacing, using your voice, your body language, how to punch and defend yourself using your aids.”

According to participants’ feedback, it’s often the first time that disabled women have been given this information, says Zeilinger. 

After 30 years of experience instructing women and girls around the world, she continues to find satisfaction in her work. “I’m not a patient person, but to see when something changes, when there’s that click, is so rewarding for me.”

As for the AGE grant, Zeilinger is grateful for the resources it brings. “I have to underline what a luxury it is to get such a large amount in one go. If you're an underfunded organisation working on violence against women, making yourself accessible often costs money that you don’t have.”

Domestic violence plan a “historic first”

While the pandemic has turned the spotlight on domestic violence, Zeilinger credits a generation of young feminist ministers and secretaries of state in Belgium for putting in place a federal action plan that’s a “historic first for Belgium”.

“For the first time, we’ve also a francophone plan supported by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation that wants to promote self-defence,” she says. 

The nonprofit is also active on the international stage, collaborating in projects across Europe.

Find more information here on the No Means No campaign preventing violence against women with disabilities in Europe.



Written by Sarah Crew