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Increased Risk of Violence for people with Norm-breaking Functional Capacity

‘In order to prevent violence against women with disabilities, we need to increase the status of this group in society,’ says Icelandic researcher Hrafnhildur S. Gunnarsdóttir. A Nordic project is finding the best ways to prevent the violence.

Ann Jönsson. Press photo
 Ann Jönsson. Press photo

Having a norm-breaking functional capacity commonly makes a person highly dependent on others, and victims of violence in this group are often in some way dependent on the perpetrator. Another problem is that society often fails in dealing effectively with these issues due to lack of knowledge and stereotypical thinking. For example, the police may not be able to communicate with a deaf person about the violations he has experienced, and a man seeking protection may be told men can’t be violated.

The project Gender-based Violence against People with Disabilities brings attention to the fact that the risk of falling victim to violence is higher if a person has a norm-breaking functional capacity. Under the leadership of the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues, experts from Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Åland and the Faroe Islands are assessing the situation in their respective countries. The project will result in a Nordic overview of how this group is dealt with in policy making and in national legislation against gender-based violence.

Ann Jönsson, expert at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare and Sweden’s representative in the project’s expert group, believes in the importance of Nordic co-operation.

‘We can learn from each other. We have similar welfare systems, history, rights and views on the topic. People with disabilities are integrated in our societies and we have strong disability organisations monitoring the issue.’

80 per cent of the women victims

A study requested by the European Parliament in 2004 shows that 80 per cent of women with norm-breaking functional capacity have experienced violence. Larger studies on violence against men and children are lacking, but indicators point to an increased risk of violence also in these groups.

‘Unless we distinguish between women, men, girls and boys, part of the violence remains invisible,’ says Jönsson.

In 2011 she wrote the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare’s training material Sällan sedda, which deals with how violence against women with disabilities can be prevented. Violence in close relationships often involves a life partner and the victim’s home environment. A person with a norm-breaking functional capacity is often dependent on a wider circle of people. The high-risk environments often differ in that they are expanded to also include for example group homes, transportation and other support services.

‘The most important thing with Sällan sedda was that the perspective – disabilities and their possible consequences – became integrated into our work. It became an important perspective among others,’ says Jönsson.

Discrimination affects a person’s self-image

Hrafnhildur Snæfríða- Gunnarsdóttir. Photo: private
 Hrafnhildur Snæfríða- Gunnarsdóttir. Photo: private

In October, the EU report Access to specialised victim support services for women with disabilities who have experienced violence was published. The report is based on a study including women from four European countries, including Iceland. All women interviewed reported to have experienced some form of violence related to their norm-breaking functional capacity. One of the researchers behind the report, Hrafnhildur S. Gunnarsdóttir at the University of Iceland, emphasises that the discrimination and marginalisation of these individuals in society have to be considered in order to understand the violence.

‘The subordination of women, the powerlessness in everyday life and the constant vulnerability to harassment and objectification contribute to a self-image where many victims cannot even identify that they have been victimised. In order to prevent the violence, we need to increase the status of women with disabilities in society at large.’

Institutions most risky

Maria Montefusco, project manager at the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues and Secretary of Council of Nordic Cooperation on Disability, points to an important difference between the Nordic and other European countries.

‘We no longer have the same large institutions, the environment that has been identified as being the most risky. The Nordic studies show that violence is more common in segregated housing.’

Gunnarsdóttir agrees: housing facilities and institutions contribute to isolation, which can make it difficult for victims to seek help.

‘In order to muster enough strength to seek help, you need support from those around you. The isolation can prevent the residents from creating their own networks.’

Updated 2 May 2020