“I’m not scared,” Julia* said with a smile. This was a sparkling moment for Prem Singh, a mental health specialist who had supported Julia when she was first brought to the Empower Pacific Counselling Centre by her father. Prem recalled the first time she met Julia - - she sat face down, made no eye contact, and only said, “I’m scared”. Through counselling Prem discovered that Julia was four months pregnant as a result of rape.
As the counselling sessions progressed, Julia started communicating with Prem in short, simple sentences or just a few brief words. Prem found out that Julia’s rapist had even threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
Her role as a mental health specialist does not limit Prem to only providing counselling; she can also accompany her clients through the justice process. Helping Julia through the justice process including – reporting the case to police, providing expert witness in court, always ‘interpreting’ between Julia and officials – Prem has found that this process can further traumatize survivors of violence.
“Medical professionals, police officers, including the sexual offences unit, prosecutors and court officials should be trained to communicate with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in appropriate ways, particularly those with intellectual disabilities like Julia, by using simple words, empathy and respect for the rights of the people sitting in front of them.”
When she was informed that her rapist had been convicted, Julia said, “I am happy because he did a really bad thing to me.” The sense of justice and satisfaction at the successful result of the legal proceedings was directly related to the support provided by Prem.
According to a report produced by the United Nations, evidence suggests that persons with psychosocial disabilities experience more violence compared to persons without disabilities, while persons with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence, those with mental health conditions are at nearly four times the risk of experiencing violence.
Sustainable Development Goal 5 – Gender Equality, calls for the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against all women and girls, including those with disabilities. In the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), there is a stand-alone article on women with disabilities: Article 6. The article recognizes that women and girls with disabilities are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination and establishes that state parties should take all appropriate measures to ensure their full development, advancement and empowerment.
Furthermore, Goal 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, calls for ensuring equal access to justice for all. CRPD Article 13 requires that state parties ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others, including through the provision of procedural and age-appropriate accommodations in all legal proceedings; and calls for the promotion of appropriate training for those working in the field of administration of justice.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) like Empower Pacific fill the gap on the ground by providing crucial justice accompaniment support services to survivors of violence, enabling them to exercise their rights and access justice.
“I feel like persons with intellectual disabilities and psychosocial conditions are often deprived of their power to make decisions, stand up for themselves and be heard by the people surrounding them, their families, teachers, communities and institutions. We, professional counsellors, are trained to listen to their unheard voices.”
In her role as clinical supervisor in Empower Pacific, Prem also provides mentorship and training to her fellow counsellors and social workers.
Empower Pacific is a CSO partner of the Fiji Access to Justice Project, implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the European Union. Empower Pacific has received grants from the project aimed to strengthen their justice support services, with particular focus on persons with disabilities and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups by empowering people to access their legal rights and justice services, as well as strengthening key justice institutions and civil society to deliver improved services. The Project supports the Fijian people and government to achieve Goal 16 and Goal 5.
*Not her real name