Intellectually disabled women in India are routinely locked up in institutions where they suffer sexual or other abuse and are “treated worse than animals”, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The report said women were often dumped in overcrowded, state-run institutions lacking basic facilities, where mentally ill and disabled people were “ridiculed, feared, and stigmatised”.
“Once they’re locked up, their lives are often rife with isolation, fear and abuse, with no hope of escape,” said report author Kriti Sharma.
“Women and girls with disabilities face unique challenges, including sexual violence and denial of access to reproductive health, that men do not.”
The Treated Worse Than Animals report was based on interviews with 52 women and girls who were in or had been in institutions, along with those of 150 doctors and family members.
“The house aunty [staff member] who drops me to school hits me. She hits me here [in the institution] too. She slaps me hard with her hand,” an 11-year-old said in the report.
“When she hits me, I feel like crying and I feel sad. I feel like crying in school too. I want to leave this place.”
Indian government census figures show around 1.5 million people suffer intellectual disabilities such as genetic Down syndrome, while another 722,826 suffer from mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder.
Experts, however, argue those figures are strikingly low for the world’s second most populous country where many health issues go undiagnosed.
Women with a range of disabilities and illnesses such as schizophrenia are often admitted against their will by their families or legal guardians, despite the fact that forced institutionalisation is illegal in India.
“Relatives just dump patients at the hospital and think that’s it,” a nurse at Pune hospital said.
“They put fake addresses and phone numbers on the registration forms so we cannot contact them again.”
India’s government launched a national mental health program in 1982 to provide community-based services, but Human Rights Watch said it was largely ineffective and lacked oversight.
Ms Sharma said many of the women she interviewed were desperate to leave, describing their treatment as unbearable.
“Long-term warehousing of women and girls with disabilities is simply not the answer,” she said.