Placing women with disabilities at the centre of the conversation with One Billion Rising

The photograph shows a woman wearing a pink and turquoise navari sari with golden work and a golden blouse. She is performing a lavani on stage.
Jyoti Chauhan

Who do we talk about when we talk about ‘women’?

Who do we talk about when we talk about ‘women’? Do we consider women situated at the margins who face multiple layers of discrimination, women who challenge normative conceptions of ‘perfect’ bodies? Do we talk about the ones whose womanhood is denied, invalidated?

Sexuality and Disability joined hands with One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end violence against women, to bring women with disabilities to the centre of this conversation. We wanted to rise in solidarity against exploitation of all women and other marginalised genders, disabled or non-disabled people.

‘The biggest issue for women with disabilities is that they are not considered women enough, their identity is challenged, they are reduced to a disability. By bringing Sexuality and Disability into One Billion Rising, by rising for the rights of women and girls with disabilities, we want to establish that girls and women with disabilities are women, just like anyone else, with their own sets of joys, sorrows, aspirations, dreams, struggles and ambitions,’ says Nidhi Goyal, the program director of the Sexuality and Disability programme at Point of View.

This collaboration was part of Sexuality and Disability’s long-term program to eliminate stigma and prejudice that women with disabilities face with regard to their sexual rights. In India, where female sexuality is often censored, women with disabilities are not considered sexual at all; the disabled body, as academic Anita Ghai says, is seen as ‘unfeminine’ and ‘unacceptable’.

In the run-up to the event, the organisers launched an online campaign asking women living with different disabilities to send in video messages, describing the difficulties they face, sharing how their environment becomes disabling for them, and telling us why they are rising for their rights. In line with the theme of One Billion Rising this year, the purpose of this campaign was to collectively raise our voices against exploitation and violence. Here are a couple of the videos we received:

On February 12, more than 170 people, including around forty people with visible disabilities came together at Daughters of St Paul auditorium, a fully accessible venue in Bandra, to celebrate rights and freedom through dance, drama, poetry and comedy.

Nidhi, who hosted the show, began emphasising how everybody – disabled, non-disabled, and people of different gender identities and sexual orientations – need to rise together against exploitation.

The first performance was by Mangla, a singer who lives with visual impairment, who performed the song Yeh Honsla from the film Dor. The song, emotive yet powerful, set the tone for the evening.

Then, 21-year-old Aishwarya Kamat recited poetry on mental health, particularly on the fact that words such as depression and OCD when used thoughtlessly can be oppressive and exclusionary for those living with these illnesses.

Power-packed performances by dancers with locomotor disabilities followed next. The dancers, who work with the Tarai Foundation, redefined ‘sexy’ through lavani performances, and busted normative ideas about which bodies are considered desirable.

Community leaders at SNEHA performed a powerful street play that underlined the fact that disability rights are human rights. Their performance showed that violence and lack of access are problems that pervade both public and private spaces.

Bollywood choreographer Sandip Soparrkar and actor Sharbani Mukherji then performed a powerful act on acid attacks. It was only last year that acid attacks were included in the amended disabilities act.

What followed next left the audience in splits; it was time for Nidhi’s stand-up comedy on sex, sexuality and blindness. Nidhi successfully showed how humour and satire can be important tools to challenge ableism, and to call out oppression.

Finally, we had video messages of solidarity from our special guests Kalki Koechlin and Yami Gautam, who have both played characters with disabilities in cinema.

In all, it was a powerful, joyous evening celebrating equal rights for all! Here is a short video of the evening: