A Tasmania witness has told a Royal Commission that the forced sterilization of young girls and women with disabilities has been justified by courts because the girls are "attractive" and the risk of abuse "cannot be discounted".
Women with Disabilities Australia executive-director Carolyn Frohmader was giving evidence at the Royal Commission's inquiry into the violence and exploitation of people with disability, specifically speaking about sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls with disabilities.
Ms Frohmader has called for a redress scheme for women who have been sterilised in Australia without their consent.
She said she knew of individuals who were sterilized at age 7 due to a mild vision impairment, or who were told they were having their appendix out, or who were not told at all only to discover, when they wanted to have children, that their uterus was removed as a child.
She also raised issues with group home settings for women with disabilities, where sexual and reproductive rights were at particular risk of interference.
We know of women with disability, particularly intellectual disability, who have been used by service providers to provide sex to men with disability in other group homes as a way of addressing challenging behaviours- Women with Disabilities Australia executive-director Carolyn Frohmader
Ms Frohmader gave examples in group homes where women with intellectual disabilities are being pushed to have sex with men in the group homes as a way to manage the male's challenging behaviours, or of young women being forced into marriage with older men to become sexual and domestic slaves.
"We know of women with disability, particularly intellectual disability, who have been used by service providers to provide sex to men with disability in other group homes as a way of addressing challenging behaviours...'that is your boyfriend' and pushed inside the door, and used in that way.
"I'm really sorry to say that this does happen in Australia, and it continues to happen in Australia...the situation for women and girls who are living in segregated residential institutions is just horrific."
When asked at the hearing why parents, guardians and judges are making decisions for girls and women regarding their sexual and reproductive rights, Ms Frohmader detailed four common justifications found within Australian court judgements for giving forced sterilizations and forced contraception.
Ms Frohmader said that underpinning all the arguments was a view that women with disability are a burden to society and "that they are somehow less than human".
She said arguments in favour of sterilization included a eugenics notion, where sterilization would prevent the chance of disability being passed to offspring, as well as an assumption that the women did not have capacity for parenthood.
The judge said 'it is unlikely that she will ever have capacity to understand and voluntarily enter into a sexual relationship, it is however well documented that disabled children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and she is quite an attractive girl'."- Carolyn Frohmader
Another reason was to ease the burden of menstrual management, either for the girls themselves, or to make it easier for parents or carers.
A final reason, labelled "absurd" by Ms Frohmader, has seen courts allowing forced sterilizations to prevent sexual abuse, with judges commenting on the possibility of abuse due to the girls' appearance.
"The last one, and this goes to forced contraception as well, is about the prevention of sexual abuse. That has been a really common theme in sterilization authorisations by courts and tribunals," Ms Frohmader said.
"There are some really horrible, horrible things that have been stated in this context.
"[In a case] where approval was given for the sterilization of a 16 year old disabled girl ... the judge said 'it is unlikely that she will ever have capacity to understand and voluntarily enter into a sexual relationship, it is however well documented that disabled children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, and she is quite an attractive girl'."
University of Technology Sydney law senior lecturer Linda Steele said unless there is a medical reason for sterilization, where the procedure might save a persons life, it should never occur.
Dr Steele added that sterilization and suppressed menstruation was also believed to assist social inclusion, where women and girls with disabilities can live and have relationships in the community because of these interventions.
But she dismissed the logic as perverse, stating that sterilization robs women of their ability to identify as women, as sexual beings, and as human.
"It overlooks the fact that this kind of equality or inclusion, that women and girls are apparently able to access through sterilization, depends upon this intervention, of removing parts of their body or stopping bodily processes which are actually core to how a lot of people identify and experience their bodies in the world."
Dr Steele said the decisions being made for women and girls, without their consent, were a form of violence.
She wanted to see greater transparency around the use of forced sterilizations and contraception on girls and women with disabilities, from better collection of data, to the public-release of information in closed-courts.
"Detail about what kinds of assumptions and ideas and knowledge around women with disability are held by individual judges, or enabled by psychological expertise or legal principles. We are not getting that level of information and that is really important to have."
Ms Frohmader said redress was not just about money and compensation.
She said redress and apologies for forced sterilizations would be important steps forward for disability advocacy and the eradication of ableism.
"The very important thing about redress is that it sends a very clear message to the community about what is not acceptable, and so, if we are talking about changing attitudes towards woman and girls with disability, I see that we cannot move forward unless we are prepared to address the past."
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