The Role of Research in Making Visible Violence Against Women with Disabilities in Ethiopia

By Dr Melissa Langworthy

In Ethiopia, gender-based violence (GBV), particularly against women with disabilities, has been exacerbated not only by restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by multiple recent ethnic conflicts and national disasters. In a recent briefing by the Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed in November 2020 he estimates that Ethiopia experienced 114 ethnic conflicts in the past two and a half years.

The incidence of school-related GBV can be exacerbated by conflicts and crises, more so for girls and women with disabilities (Clarke and Sawyer 2014, UNESCO 2014). Violence experienced while travelling to school and violence and bullying in school deter women and girls with disabilities from engaging in, or being able to meaningfully enjoy, educational opportunities. As such, GBV in Ethiopia — especially against women with disabilities — was an acute issue before it became intertwined with the economic tensions, stressed public services, and lockdown policies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quantitative data show women and girls with disabilities face higher rates of GBV

In Ethiopia, as elsewhere, data collection on GBV is insufficient, especially when representing women and girls with disabilities. However, (limited) quantitative data show that women and girls with disabilities face much higher rates of GBV. Globally, women with disabilities are 2 to 4 times more likely to suffer domestic violence (UN Women 2020). For women and girls with disabilities, violence is perpetrated by a range of actors (family members, neighbours, strangers, teachers, transport providers, health workers) and in a range of spaces (the home, education system, legal systems, healthcare systems, workplaces, and public spaces) (Vaughan et al. 2018).

Globally, women with disabilities are 4.2 times more likely to experience controlling behaviour from partners and have statistically significant higher rates of non-partner violence than women without disabilities (Astbury and Walji 2014). Research on children with disabilities in 5 African countries (including Ethiopia), found that nearly every participant had been sexually abused at least once and most close to 3 times on average, but girls were far more likely to have been sexually abused repeatedly (10 times or more) (UNFPA 2018).

While more and regular quantitative data collection is necessary to clearly understand the prevalence of GBV and to track trends, it is not sufficient to serve the needs of women and girls with disabilities. When asked about the experiences of women and girls with disabilities in Ethiopia, Includovate’s Senior Disability Researcher, Sisay Mammo explained that quantitative data alone does not reveal the nature, type, and severity of violence that women and girls with disabilities experiences:

Women with hearing or speech impairments and women with intellectual disabilities are highly vulnerable to violence in Ethiopia, for they cannot even speak their violence. Public communication modalities — especially those between community members and law enforcement — are often inaccessible to persons with disabilities.

Issues of disability inclusion have become more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a blog post from November 2020, Includovate’s Sisay Mammo and Privilege Hang’andu called attention to how COVID responses have threatened to ‘leave behind’ persons with disabilities through public health messaging that is inaccessible to blind and deaf persons and is insensitive to the impacts of social distancing on persons with disabilities who depend on caregivers and close contact with others. For women and girls with disabilities, mobility restrictions, social distancing, difficulty accessing healthcare and other facilities, and cancellation of social services make them increasingly vulnerable to GBV.

Qualitative data can illustrate the multiple ways in which women and girls with disabilities are highly vulnerable to abuse

In Ethiopia, sociocultural norms stigmatise disabilities and often ascribe disability prevalence to moral failings in the family. As a result, families are motivated to isolate or hide their children to escape these negative perceptions.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that women and girls with disabilities are often vulnerable because of assumptions that they are asexual, virgins, and free from sexually transmitted infections, leading to an increased risk of rape (UNFPA 2018). Further, community beliefs that motherhood is good for persons with disabilities may influence the sexual and reproductive health options offered to women and girls with disabilities, even victims of GBV. Sisay Mammo explained that:

in many places it is believed that it would be good for women with blindness to have a child irrespective of whether they got married or not. This is because it is believed that the child will lead the woman (the blind woman) when he/she grows.

These sociocultural norms and assumptions have influence over the access of women and girls with disabilities to public services, including health and police services for victims of GBV. In general, these service providers are not equipped to communicate directly with people with disabilities. For example, police and healthcare providers may not have sign language skills (or access to an interpreter) that would allow for direct communication with women and girls who have hearing and/or speech impairments. Further, women and girls with disabilities may be less able to perform as witnesses in police investigations if they are unable to provide reliable witness statements or descriptions of the perpetrator.

CALL TO ACTION: The need for disability-inclusive research

More data is needed on the lived experience of women and girls with disabilities in Ethiopia. To capture the functional difficulties that women and girls with disabilities face, and to inform inclusive prevention and response measures for GBV, research must:

· include qualitative tools that allow for the lived experience of disability to be communicated in respondents own words;

· include quantitative tools that is disaggregated by gender and disability (in addition to other key markers such as residence and age);

· explore disability-related support services and the accessibility of gender-based violence services;

· study different options for public health and police service workers to communicate effectively with people living with disabilities who are victims of GBV; and

· trial public awareness campaigns around the rights of person’s with disabilities to combat harmful social stigmas.

About the author

Dr. Melissa Langworthy is Principal Researcher for Inclusive Market Systems at Includovate. She is a feminist economist focusing on women’s economic empowerment, the impact of gender in entrepreneurship, and political economy of women’s economic empowerment programs and policies. She serves as a consultant to the EU, Oxfam, and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science.


Astbury, J, and F Walji. “The Prevalence and Psychological Costs of Household Violence by Family Members against Women with Disabilities in Cambodia.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 29, no. 17 (2014): 3127–49.
Clarke, D, & Sawyer, J. (2014). Girls, Disabilities and School Education in the East Asia Pacific Region. East Asia Pacific UN Girls’ Education Initiative. Available from:
UNESCO. (2014) School-Related Gender-Based Violence in the Asia-Pacific Region. Available from:
UNFPA. (2018). Young Persons with Disabilities: Global study on ending gender-based violence, and realising sexual and reproductive health rights. Available from:
UN Women. (2020). Women with disabilities in a pandemic (COVID-19). Available from:
Vaughan, C., Devine, A., Diemer, K., & Jansen, H. (2018) Measuring the Prevalence of Violence against Women with Disabilities. UNFPA & the University of Melbourne Available from:

Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk”. Includovate is an Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. Its mission is to incubate transformative and inclusive solutions for measuring, studying, and changing discriminatory norms that lead to poverty, inequality, and injustice. To know more about us at Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.



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