Women with disabilities are among the most vulnerable when it comes to gender-based violence, yet support services for them in Fiji are severely lacking, a meeting discussing the elimination of violence against women has heard.
Naomi Navoce, the gender and youth officer at the Pacific Disability Forum, told the National Network Meeting on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Suva how a lot of women and girls with disabilities never report attacks to authorities because of stigma, fear and difficulties of access.
"Violence against women with disabilities is one of the sensitive issues. There are women and girls and women with disability out there who are living silently in fear because they are victims of violence and abuse," Ms Navoce said.
Ms Navoce said access to government and social services by people with disabilities still needs improvement and this is even more so when it comes to women and girls who are victims of violence.
"Women with disabilities have limited access to facilities, access to justice, access to the built-environment," said Ms Navoce. "How would I be able to access buildings with my wheelchair? What about those who are hearing-impaired? Would you be able to provide services to them? What about sign-language interpreters? And facilities in Braille for the visually-impaired"
The National Network Meeting is organized by the Fiji Women's Crisis Center to enable those working in the area of eliminating violence against women to share their knowledge and to work more cohesively and effectively.
"Disability organizations and the Fiji Women's Crisis Center cannot do the work alone. It is each of us who must come together and join hands to eliminate violence against women in Fiji and the Pacific region," said Ms Navoce.
Sainimili Tawake of the Fiji National Council for Disabled Persons highlighted the dis-empowering position women and girls with disabilities in Fiji find themselves in. Ms Tawake spoke of a case she came across where a home was broken into and a disabled woman raped. The family reported the break-in to police, but the rape was never reported.
Recent research on the incidence of disability in Fiji showed about 11,400 people in Fiji have some form of disability. Of that number 46 percent are women and girls, said Ms Tawake.
The research found that 2 percent of women and girls with disabilities reported being subjected to some form of violence. The percentage was less for women than for men, although Ms Tawake said this may also be an indicator of the lack of reporting.
"If women with disabilities do report the attacks they are victimized further and sometimes thrown out of their homes," said Ms Tawake.
Shamima Ali, the coordinator of the Fiji Women's Crisis Center, acknowledged that the center - like the rest of the country - needs to improve services specifically for women with disabilities. Although FWCC facilities are disability friendly facilities and counselors sensitized to dealing with women with disabilities, the center needs to train counselors in sign language to fill this gap.
The four-day meeting which began on Tuesday is organized by the FWCC.
It gathers some 100 delegates including representatives from the Fiji Police Force, Social Welfare Department, Legal Aid Commission, Provincial Councils as well community, disability representatives, faith-based organizations and women's groups from diverse locations such as Taveuni, Vanua Levu, Naitasiri and Serua, and the Western Division.
The meeting is hearing from those working in the field of gender-based violence on topics such as the opportunities and challenges within the law and understanding better the shelter services available for survivors of violence.
At the end of the meeting the participants will develop strategies for the next two years to help them work in a more cohesive and effective manner in eliminating violence against women in communities across Fiji.
The meeting is supported by Australian Aid and held at Studio 6 Apartments convention center off Waimanu Road in Suva.
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