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The complexities of the issues surrounding women with disability and violence

9 Feb 2017, by Informa

In the lead-up to the 8th Annual National Disability Summit, taking place on 8-9 May 2017, at the Novotel Melbourne on Collins, I had the chance to speak to Belinda Mason, Director, Blur Projects and Denise Beckwith who are co-presenting on the issues surrounding women with disability & violence.

Their presentation will explain how the Silent Tears Project creates a platform for a conversation to commence on how to respond to & prevent violence against women with disability which is beneficial to all those involved in the NDIS initiative. We hope you enjoy the interview.


Informa: Can you explain some of the complexities of the issues surrounding women with disability and violence?

Belinda & Denise: The invisibility of the topic of violence against women with disability in conversations about gender-based violence is evident in the lack of understanding that such an issue exists. Even though there are many great people working hard to break the silence, from our experience we can see that it is a long road ahead. We want to lend our support by creating a platform for women with disability who have been subjected to violence and women who acquired disability caused by violence to reveal their stories without judgement or justification.

From our perspective, it is clear that the wider community is not aware that women with disability experience violence in their lives. There is a hold held view that people with disability are protected from harm. It is also clear that the wider community fails to acknowledge that violence causes permanent disability.

The peak organisation, Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) have found that women with disabilities are 40% more likely to be the victims of domestic violence than women without disabilities, and more than 70% of women with disabilities have been victims of violent sexual encounters at some time in their lives. Violence against women with disabilities in Australia is far more extensive than violence amongst the general population.

Often when things happen to people with disability, they are siloed by their disability making it difficult or even impossible to access support services. The Silent Tears exhibition breaks down the silos of culture, gender, identity and disability as it shows participants as multi-faceted people with varying experiences and identities. Silent Tears is educative of the wider community to realise a person’s identity is multi-layered and a collaborative approach is required to respond in a meaningful and holistic manner.

Their stories today reveal the complexities that make gender-based violence so challenging to resolve.

It is important to break the silence concerning the topic of violence against women with disability, as this silence exacerbates naivety. It would be naive to think violence doesn’t happen to people with disability and it is even more naive to think violence doesn’t create disability.


Informa: What attracted you Belinda as a Photographic Artist, and you, Denise as a Disability Consultant, to creating the Silent Tears Project alongside emerging artists with disability, Dieter Knierim and Margherita Coppolino, and hosting it as a multi-media exhibition?


Belinda & Denise: The seed for Silent Tears was born after Belinda’s work Unfinished Business was shown at the United Nations Geneva, in conjunction with Australia’s ratification on the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The concluding UN report revealed many gaps and in particular, Australia’s obligation to the prevention of violence against women.  Unfinished Business had included women with disability who had been subjected to violence in an intuitional setting. It was a natural progression for Silent Tears to evolve from the outcomes of Unfinished Business.


Belinda Mason

Belinda reached out to Diane Kingston, Deputy Director of CBM International Advocacy and Alliances who encouraged Belinda to also create an international component of Silent Tears. CBM’s financial and in kind support has been instrumental in the ongoing success of the project. Recently, OXFAM Australia has provided in kind support which has lead to further growth of the project.



Belinda thought that this project was an ideal an opportunity to work with artists with disability and Dieter Knierim and Margherita Coppolino were a perfect fit. As the project grew Denise came forward, firstly as a friend, to support the project.  She and Belinda realized that their 16 years friendship could become a professional alliance also. Although Denise became as a consultant, she is also a documentary photographer in the project.  Their combined skills have created a challenging body of work demonstrating that Art and Advocacy are powerful collaborators in igniting change.


Informa: When you first exhibited the project, what reaction did you get, and have the reactions since exceeded your initial expectations?

Belinda & Denise: Silent Tears has touched many raw nerves, and first reactions have been very powerful. We have made sure that there are always trigger warnings displayed at the entrance and that there was information available for people to seek help. The images shine a torch into the dark corners that many would prefer no light to be shed. The images do not portray violence, but they don’t need to, instead they captivate you with a familiar intimacy before revealing a hidden truth. The exhibition is never quite what the audience anticipates, even if it is described to you. This is because the experience is immersive by design.

The response and support is clearly reflective of a need within our community for the voice of women with disability who have been subjected to violence and women who acquired disability caused by violence to be heard.  Each of the participant stories are unique, but behind them are many more women with the same lived experience.  It is clear that the value of the work as an educative tool is being realised and we are working with organisations in order for the project to have a longer life and greater reach.  For audiences, we have seen people learn about the impact and extent of violence within our community, and in doing so they ‘join the dots’ as to how this impacts on us all. For the participants, we have seen empowerment and pride as they stand together not as victims of violence but as survivors of violence.


Informa: You gained various media and social media responses and received a number of letters of support from stakeholders working with women who are affected by violence and disability. In your opinion, why is it is important that a project like this gains the support of a wider (and global) audience?

Belinda & Denise: Violence against women, is a human issue, is not bounded by culture, gender or disability, as it is an issue that impacts on women globally.  Change begins when local communities find the need to reach out and seek support and guidance on how to create sustainable change. There is a flow on effect as we find we identify with the experience of others. Change organically expands nationally and then reaches out and expands into our global community. In doing, so we move forward because we recognise and acknowledge the importance of collaboration in creating global change.  Without the support of local, national and global communities Silent Tears would not exist, but on the other hand if policy and practices were responsive to people with disability, particularly women with disabilities, there would be no need for the project to exist.


Informa: The participants of the project were women with disabilities who have experienced violence, and women who have acquired their disability as a direct result of violence.

  1. What impact did the project have on the participants of the project?

Belinda & Denise: That is a question that only the participants can really answer. We do know that many have felt that Silent Tears has been apart of their healing process. Participants have travelled to the exhibitions and events for Silent Tears and relayed their personal stories directly to audiences. The empowering impact on those participants has been extremely moving to witness. The participants have made friendship bonds with each other and us through a mutual understand of loss and resilience.

  1. What implications does the project have on women in a similar position?

Belinda & Denise: For women who have experience similar situations as the participants, Silent Tears validates and acknowledges their own experiences and affords the realization that they are not alone. We hope that this knowledge will support them to find the courage to reach out to family friends or work colleagues in order to initiate change in their lives.


Informa: The 8th Annual National Disability Summit will take place on 8-9 May 2017. As a speaker at this popular annual event, what elements are you most looking forward to, and why?

Belinda & Denise: Attending the 8th National Disability Summit will provide a great opportunity to gain an understanding of the changing landscape of the disability sector. We hope that our participation will also enable networking opportunities with both people with disability and disability support services with the view to support Silent Tears as a tool of advocacy.


For more information about detailed conference agenda and to register, please visit the 8th Annual National Disability Summit, website.p17a07_disability_delegatepack




(An article by Sarah Hardiman)

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