Defending yourself when you are a woman with a disability

Mockery, abuse and discrimination, to name but a few. Such is the reality for many women who have a disability and who have become even more vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic. To equip them with self-defence training, the non-profit organisation Garance is providing five workshops aimed at building the women’s own self-confidence, but also designed to help them become trainers for their peers. A double objective achieved by this project, which is supported by the Alliance for Gender Equality in Europe in which the King Baudouin Foundation participates.

"You are courageous, caring, committed and smiling.” As the compliments come, Mélissa* leans on her walker and a broad smile lights up her face. These kind words are just some of many spoken during one of the five self-defence workshops organized by Garance. Like three other women with a disability, each accompanied by a professional assistant, Mélissa is there to learn how to face up to the many instances of aggression and discrimination to which she is regularly subjected. However, there is more: she is also there to become, in turn, a self-defence trainer for other women with a disability.

"I am taking part in these workshops to learn how to defend myself in life.” Aged 44, Mélissa was born with an intellectual and a motor disability. Today, she lives in the 8e Jour centre in Brussels. Whether it is in the bus, within the family or even sometimes with teachers or those in the medical profession, women with a disability are particularly victims of insults, aggression, mockery and discrimination. “They are afraid of saying ‘No’, of establishing limits because they fear losing the help they need. The Covid-19 pandemic has made them even more isolated and increased their dependence on professionals and carers. And this has rendered these women even more vulnerable” explains Dorothée Van Avermaet, in charge of the project ‘Women with an intellectual disability, actors for their safety’, as well as a self-defence trainer at the Garance association.

Being strong, free and safe

For Mélissa, childhood and adolescence were particularly difficult and characterised by insults and remarks about how she walked. Still today, the abuse – small or large, sexual or other – continues. “A few weeks ago a young boy mocked me in the street. I felt hate, anger and great sadness, but I didn’t say anything. I kept all my feelings to myself”, Mélissa remembers. Knowing how to react in such situations is one of the aims of the Garance training. “We teach these women to feel strong, free and safe and then show them five ways of reacting in instances of abuse, namely creating a surprise, saying ‘no’, leaving the situation, making a fuss and asking for help”, explains Dorothée Van Avermaet, who helps participants in the workshops to feel more at ease in the street but also at home, helping them to understand the concept of discrimination, how to set limits and assert themselves.

These tools are relevant for everyone and Mélissa is already telling the other residents in her centre about them during the training sessions she herself gives. “At first, there was a lot of giggling, but the participants are friendly and understanding” she says. Becoming trainers themselves is a real achievement for many women with an intellectual disability and one of which they are justly proud of. “We teach them through role-playing and simulation, which help the message to be understood directly”, explains another colleague at the Garance association. And to help Mélissa succeed even more, she is supported by Emilie, one of the specialist trainers at the 8eJour centre. Together they form a team and complete the training as a duo.

Encouraging independence

“Initially, the assistants who support the women with a disability receive a full day’s training. The idea is that they adopt an attitude that is almost the opposite to the one they usually adopt. Often, their role is to advise, and explain. Here we ask them to hold back. It is really the women who have a disability who are the focus of the training, who carry the message”, explains Dorothée Van Avermaet. During each workshop, Emilie is at Mélissa’s side. She explains again the content where necessary and may even provide support, help in the logistics. “It’s not obvious taking this position, but it is really instructive. Sometimes I have the reflex of wanting to help or she waits for me to intervene. We have to change how we function during the workshops and during the training that Mélissa goes on to give at the centre” emphasises Emilie. The two women have known each other for four years. “It was I who suggested that we attend the workshops together, because there is a real need among women who have a disability to know how to defend themselves. Mélissa is really willing to learn and as the workshops advance, I have seen her gain in confidence”, adds Emilie.

Launched in 2018, the training course ‘Women with an intellectual disability, actors for their safety’ is now in its third programme. Whilst self-defence is important for all women, it is even more so for those with a disability. “People point at them and mock them. There is a tendency for people to speak of them in the 3rd person, as if they were not present in the room, and they are not believed, especially when they suffer sexual abuse”, further comments Dorothée Van Avermaet. Emilie believes that, "These tools for self-defence could also be taught to men with a disability. Even though they suffer less abuse than women, they are nevertheless also often victims of insults and discrimination. Unfortunately, disability is quickly pointed out.”

"We teach these women to be strong, free and safe."
Dorothée Van Avermaet
asbl Garance

* Name given her for this article

More about the Alliance for Gender Equality in Europe

Launched in 2021, the Alliance for Gender Equality in Europe is a joint philanthropic initiative of the King Baudouin Foundation, the Chanel Foundation and the L’Oréal Fund for Women, which aims to support and reinforce efforts to promote gender equality and the rights of women in Europe. As part of the first call for projects of its ‘2021 Fund for Covid Solidarity’, 13 organisations that work closely with vulnerable women, across ten European countries, benefitted from its support, amounting to 50,000 euros. The asbl Garance is one of the recipient organisations.

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