Author: Tiffanny Tinoco Smith
Mentor: Pamela Molina
“I went to a psychiatric consultation and the doctor told my mom that I had to have an abortion, like it was routinely done. The doctor and my mother were having this conversation while I was there but they never asked me directly what I wanted to do, they completely ignored me.” Priscilla Rodríguez: Twice Violated. Abuse and Denial of sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women with psychosocial Disabilities in Mexico.
People with disabilities have often been discriminated throughout history, and are one of the largest disadvantaged minority around the world. The following lines talk about women with disabilities in Mexico and the grievances they have been put through, specifically regarding their sexual and reproductive rights.
According to Amnesty International, sexual and reproductive health rights include “access to sexual and reproductive health care and information, as well as autonomy in sexual and reproductive decision making.” Sexual and reproductive rights also assume that all people have the right to a healthy, safe, consensual and enjoyable sex life; to control their bodies and to have sufficient accurate information to make and seek healthy decisions; to have affordable accessible services that keep them healthy, not only when pregnant, but before and after, even if they choose not to get pregnant.
Women and girls with disabilities are, according to the United Nations, among the more vulnerable and marginalized sectors in society. In addition, women with disabilities, have been “particularly vulnerable, while there is limited understanding, in general, of the broad range of risks to mental health to which women are disproportionately susceptible as a result of gender discrimination, violence, poverty, armed conflict, dislocation and other forms of social deprivation”.
In order to give the reader a better perspective of the population we are referring to, it is important to mention that according to the World Health Organization, about 15 percent of the world’s population lives with disabilities, nevertheless it does not mention data specific to women. Moreover, according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI for its initials in Spanish), in 2014, 6.2% of women in Mexico were living with a disability, which amounted to 3.8 million women.
Girls as well as women with disabilities are often seen as infantile and therefore asexualized, which in term deprives them from the empowerment women need to make decisions about their bodies, reproduction, sexuality, and sexual life in general. This tends to make maternity a controversial topic when it comes to women with disabilities, where people often argue that these women should not have children, due to them not being capable of caring for a child or stating that the child would be at risk of inheriting a disability. This controversy is further proof of society depriving women with disabilities from making their own decisions when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights.
In order to talk about sexual and reproductive rights and the difficulties women with disabilities have had to be able to exercise them, we need to make reference of eugenic theories. Eugenics became a serious scientific study during the 1900s, which entailed selecting desirable characteristics for inheritance in order to ‘improve’ future generations, which would improve the genetic quality of human population. This movement brought with it public policies in many countries encouraging certain people to reproduce, and others to abstain themselves from doing so, prohibiting reproduction in certain peoples and even going as far as to forcefully sterilizing others, which obviously resulted in many forms of discrimination and violation of human rights of peoples with disabilities (Wilson K, Philip, “Eugenics, Genetics”). Unfortunately, Mexico was not the exception to these policies.
In the 1930s the state of Veracruz, passed a “Eugenics and Mental Hygiene Law”, together with its rules of procedure, which stated that their objective was to: “study, and treat eugenic problems; regulate birth, and if necessary sterilization of human specimens unfit for reproduction and in general, whichever aspects that socially affect the species’ reproduction and its preservation from any deterioration.” (Reglamento de la sección de Eugenesia e Higiene Mental”, Gaceta Oficial 28, No. 144, December 1932, Article 1) Although one would think that this type of legislation is archaic and could have never been passed in today’s society, we should point out that this law is yet to be abolished.
We must take into account that the rights of people with disabilities have only recently started to be put on the map internationally, and Mexico, at least on paper, has been one of the countries who has supported and sought for this to be the case. In 2008, The Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came into force, in which Mexico was one of the first countries to sign and ratify it. Nevertheless, the United Nations Committee on the Rights for persons with disabilities in 2014, concluded that the situation in Mexico was not ideal and pointed out a series of specific challenges it needed to face, and recommended, among other issues, the following:
To initiate administrative and criminal proceedings, in order to punish practices which tend to violate human rights of institutionalized people. The Committee recommends the State put end to physical and isolative measures in institutions for people with disabilities.
Initiate investigations as well as administrative and criminal procedures against judicial and sanitary authorities and institutions, which recommend, authorize or apply forced sterilizations to children, adolescents, and women with disabilities. In addition, it recommends that the state guarantee access to justice and remedies to victims.
To carry out revision of Mexican civil codes to guarantee all people with disabilities the rights to marry, and exercise custody of their children.
Establish programs to help mothers with psychosocial disabilities in their responsibilities with their children.
Eliminate legislation that allows detention based on disability, and assure that all mental health services are provided based on the person’s informed consent.
Implement measures established in the State’s legislation in order to prevent, protect and remedy women and girls with disabilities who have been victims of violence.
Guarantee women with disabilities’ right to sexual and reproductive health services, as well as investigate and punish medical personnel who pressure women with disabilities who are pregnant to undergo abortion.
As we can see and what we can take from the Committee’s recommendations to the State of Mexico is that, although the country has signed and ratified treaties that protect people with disabilities’ rights, and that this is victory in itself, the work does not stop there. There is still a long way to go when it comes to implementing and guaranteeing these rights de facto, and not only on paper.
Unfortunately, Mexico is lacking in information and research regarding sexual and reproductive rights of women with disabilities. In this sense, Disability Rights International together with Colectivo Chuhcan, in their study “twice violated” shine light on abuse and denial of women with psychosocial disabilities in Mexico. The study was aimed at identifying violations of sexual and reproductive rights of women with disabilities in Mexico City, and was not exempt of difficulties to acquire specific data. These difficulties were due to the fact that “women with psychosocial disabilities are a very difficult group to access”, because of being either overprotected by their families or worse, institutionalized, therefore, interviews were carried out by women who live in the community (who are not institutionalized) but receive mental healthcare.
In said study, out of 51 women who were interviewed, 12 had been denied access to visit a gynecologist either by medical staff or their families, 22 said they had suffered abuse during visits to the gynecologist, which included sexual abuse, rape, physical, emotional and psychological abuse. The study also came across shocking information regarding sterilization, where half of the women had been recommended sterilization by a family member or medical staff, while 16 of them had actually been sterilized, with the main reason being that the child could inherit the disability they had.
One of the most worrying things about the results of the above-mentioned study is that the women who were interviewed were the ones who actually had the liberty to carry out said interview, and the results were still appalling, fearing that a study where institutionalized women could actually bring information forward, could have even worse results.
Mexico’s lack of information regarding women with disabilities’ sexual and reproductive rights is a form of discrimination in itself, because the absence of knowledge concerning the matter means that the problem is being overlooked, not only by State authorities, but also by society in general, which makes it much harder to confront. This invisibilization may arise precisely from these women and girls being asexualized, and therefore not being considered as possible victims of sexual abuse. In other words, people believe that women and girls with disabilities are similar or equivalent to children, in the sense that they are dependent among others to make decisions, and unable to make decisions for themselves. (Priscila Hernández Flores: “Mujeres con discapacidad y violencia sexual. Un problema invisibilizado”) .
This leads society to think that, because they are infantilized, they are not as exposed to sexual abuse as much as other women, nevertheless this could not be farther from the truth. Women and girls with disabilities are more likely to be sexually abused than other women, precisely because of them often being dependent among others, where in most cases it is their caretakers or close friends or family members who abuse them.
Mexico has made progress in the matter of people with disabilities, and we do need to acknowledge this as a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, it still has a long road ahead, especially when it comes protecting and guaranteeing women with disabilities’ rights to safe and informed sexual and reproductive life, where acknowledging the problematic is one of the first and most important measures to take into account.