Bhagya (name changed) falters as she tells me what happened when she said she wanted to get married.
“Do you know what my parents asked me? They said, 'Yevan irrukkan unnai kattikrathuku?' (Who is there to marry you?) I was so upset. I went into a long depression,” she recalls, over tea.
Bhagya has a disability. She has cerebral palsy. Still, she completed her school and college education. She says her parents have always been supportive – her father quit his job to take care of her -- but she cannot get over how they reacted when she expressed her interest in marriage.
“They just started using bad language and getting frustrated with me. I am talking to them about something important in my life. Who else will I speak to about this?” she asks.
Bhagya's experience is not unusual.
"The view of disabled women is as asexual beings," S.S. Smitha, the co-founder of Tejas (an advocacy group of disabled women), explains. "Caregivers of so many women do not even consider marriage for them and often treat the woman as a child," she says.
The result of this attitude is often a profound lack of information and knowledge about the woman's own sexuality.
Even Smitha, a 32-year-old well-travelled activist, did not consider the issue of sexual health and well-being until she attended a session on the subject at the Women's Institute of Leadership in Disability earlier this year. The experience inspired her to organise a cross-disability workshop on sexuality and women's rights in Chennai early this week. Bhagya was one of the 25 disabled women who participated.
At the workshop, others echoed Bhagya's views. Punitha Suresh, from The Banyan, spoke of how women with mental illness were dissuaded from getting married.
The reasons given for these attitudes of the caregivers often seemed to stem from a flawed belief that the children of persons with disabilities will also be born disabled.
Then there is the overprotective concern of some caregivers who worried that the woman will not be looked after well, or will be ill-treated.
Chaitali (name changed) pointed out that the caregivers often viewed the young women as still little girls or children. “Other than asking who will marry us, even when we do have male friends, people tend to frame that relationship in terms of a brother-sister bond,” she said.
This of course is once a male friend has been found – Bhagya had earlier raised the question of how disabled women were supposed to socialise and meet people to begin with.
Ranjini K Moorthy, an activist, who was facilitating the session on reproductive and sexual health summed up the situation: “We are seen as sexless human beings who are expected to live life without experiencing sexuality, dissuaded from marriage, socialisation is not encouraged and our relationships are desexualised.”
Life is not rosy for married disabled women either. One hearing impaired woman said her husband found her gestures embarrassing and refused to visit public places with her.
Another said her husband had married her for her money. “We are told not to marry disabled men but when we marry an able-bodied person, there are gaps in understanding and the marriage doesn't work out,” a woman said.
The belief that their children too might be born with a disability had led at least one participant to be forced into an abortion.
Ranjini and others said they had heard of disabled women being given hysterectomies, sometimes without their informed consent.
To underline how prevalent this view of disabled women as asexual was, Smitha later told me that some parents and caregivers left with their wards when they were told the sessions were for the women alone – even though the women themselves were interested in attending.
“The question is one of information. Crucial information is not reaching disabled women because we are seen as asexual. The view is 'this information is not applicable to my daughter's life',” she said. (Another barrier to information reaching the women is accessibility, something that Tejas tried to address with material in braille or as visuals, etc.)
Disabled women, especially in India, already have to make their peace with having a limited control over their bodies and lives. Some have to get accustomed to being carried, sometimes by strangers.
Some are not allowed to grow their hair to make life simpler for their caregivers. Many choose not to do things that interest them so that their caregivers are not inconvenienced.
But perhaps one of the greatest of indignities that women with disabilities endure has to be friends, family, doctors, teachers making assessments of and decisions for them on the most personal and intimate aspects of their lives: “Can she have a relationship? Will anyone want to marry her? Can she have children? How will she take care of them?”
Image credit: thebanyan.org
Ranjitha Gunasekaran studied English and Mass Communications before joining The New Indian Express reporting team in 2006, covering urban local bodies and heritage. She left the paper to help the Communications department of The Banyan, an NGO which works with destitute mentally ill women before rejoining the Express Weekend section. She covered gender, mental health, development and edited the paper's Sexualities section, the first of its kind in the country. She headed the Weekend section from August 2010 to April 2011 before leaving to help ideate on and launch a daily school edition of the newspaper. She loves dogs and food and has written about the latter for the Express lifestyle magazine, Indulge, from 2009. She quit her job in October to focus on her writing.