THIRTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD Amelia – not her real name to protect her anonymity – says she has been abused throughout her life.

“Every relationship I’ve been in, in some shape or form. Physically, emotionally, financially,” she told the Sunday National – from being raped on holiday in Turkey to being groomed by a "friend" and coerced into joining a “disgusting” online sex group on Facebook.

As a woman with a learning disability, Amelia’s experience is unfortunately very commonplace.

International studies suggest that people with a learning disability may be up to 12 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their non-disabled peers and that up to 90% will experience it in their lives.

Yet there has been very little research into gender-based violence (GBV) faced by women with learning disabilities in Scotland.

READ MORE: Scottish Human Rights Bill plans 'not ambitious enough'

The Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities (SCLD) is trying to rectify this, publishing a report earlier this year calling for "urgent action" and a national action plan.

The research was funded by the Scottish Government-funded Deliver Equally Safe programme and included testimony from women with lived experience. It was also critical of the fact Scotland doesn’t yet collect data about women with learning disabilities and gender-based violence specifically.

The report said that the human rights of women with learning disabilities are at risk and that their experiences of gender-based violence have been "overlooked" in legislative and policy discussions as well as "invisible for too long".

“It was disgusting, very sexual”

Amelia said she was added to an online sex group on Facebook in 2016 that had over 500 members and appeared to have been set up to target people with disabilities.

She was encouraged to join by a man she was seeing. Only later did she realise he had been grooming her.

“He said the group was just people talking about their sexuality but it was more than that,” she explained, adding: “It was disgusting, very sexual … There was a lot of stuff for people with disabilities who didn’t really understand what it was all about.”

As time went on, the abuse turned physical. The man who added Amelia invited her and other women from the group to his home and asked them to perform sex acts on each other.

“I wasn’t very comfortable with it and then he was like: ‘If you’re not going to do it then there’s not much point in me seeing you’,” she said. It ended up getting physical, with the man involving his dog sexually.

“After it all happened, I wasn’t allowed to go home. They didn’t let me go,” Amelia explained, with the police eventually getting involved but not taking the case any further.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Amelia had been sexually abused or assaulted. It has been a near constant in her life – with little in the way of justice, often due to confusion around consent.

Amelia’s social worker said: “There was quite a significant incident that happened with Amelia and we reported it to the police but there was confusion because she had said the word ‘yes’.

“She has a learning disability and an inability to identify when she’s at risk but it didn’t say in her capacity assessment that she cannot consent to sex even though what happened to her was pretty horrific.

“Amelia gets really upset because it's almost this feeling that there’s absolutely no point in speaking to the police because nothing happens and then there are more restrictions and safeguards put into place to protect her.”

Amelia has been placed under a guardianship order as a result of her experiences, including support, phone monitoring and a protocol if she doesn’t get back home by a certain time.

An even larger barrier to justice but progress made

Women with learning disabilities do face larger barriers in terms of accessing justice,” Gillian MacIntyre, a professor at the University of Glasgow, told the Sunday National.

The academic – who is an expert in adult social care – said: “We know that people with learning disabilities do not always feel that they are believed or listened to effectively.

“They do not always know where to go for help and can find the service landscape difficult to navigate, particularly where information about services and supports are not produced in an accessible format.”

Another barrier is education, with many women with learning disabilities not being taught effective sex education at school – which could help with safeguarding and identifying red flags. It can also be a barrier when it comes to disclosing or reporting abuse, with many not knowing or understanding what gender-based violence or abuse is.

MacIntyre said that good progress has been made lately. For example, an independent review commissioned by the Scottish Government into the funding and commissioning of services tackling violence against women and girls acknowledged the needs of those with learning disabilities. The new Learning Disability, Autism and Neurodiversity Bill may lead to further improvements when enacted. And the Scottish Human Rights Bill is looking to incorporate key UN conventions including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

But, she added: “I would argue that it still isn’t enough, however, and that more work is needed.”

The SCLD also concluded in their report that “urgent action” is needed, advocated for a national action plan, and called for the Scottish Government to address the “lack of meaningful data” on gender-based violence and learning disability.

They wrote: “We believe that without immediate targeted intervention, the violence and abuse outlined in this report will continue largely unchallenged. It is a hard reality that, in some cases, universalist approaches to legislation and policymaking do not always work. Some groups of people require bespoke and focused attention to protect their human rights.”

A spokesperson for SCLD added: “Sadly, women with learning disabilities in Scotland are subject to a range of exploitation and abuse.

“There is a lack of education on sexual health, relationships and parenthood in additional support needs schools and other settings, leaving women and girls with learning disabilities at risk of harm due to being unable to identify and respond to incidents of gender-based violence and abuse.

“SCLD is working with a wide range of partners, including women with learning disabilities and the Scottish Government, to address these issues as a priority.”

Amelia started going to a mental health group at the end of 2019. She has also found support by meeting with other women with similar experiences to her.

She looks forward to continuing her work advocating for change and will be giving input as part of the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe opposing violence against women and domestic violence.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Violence against women and girls is abhorrent and we are committed to tackling it in all its forms. Our Delivering Equally Safe fund provides £38 million over two years to support projects that focus on early intervention, prevention and support services.

“A steering group, funded by the Scottish Government, has been convened to specifically consider the impact of violence and abuse on women with learning disabilities, and what more can be done to prevent this.”

Police Scotland detective chief superintendent Martin MacLean said: “We know what a significant step it is to come forward and report sexual offending and as an organisation, Police Scotland recognises the importance of listening to and acting upon survivor feedback.

“Over recent years, we have made significant efforts to ensure appropriate engagement with survivor groups across the Violence Against Women and Girls network and have undertaken significant work to improve our response, particularly in respect of investigative structures and processes.

“We launched our victim survivor feedback process in May 2023 to ensure that any learning identified shapes our policy and practice for victims and survivors of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime. This is available in BSL and Easy Read.

“Police Scotland’s domestic abuse coordination unit is working with the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities on a collaborative piece with academic researchers to incorporate feedback into our current approach and policy.

“In addition, there is the national conversation around violence against women and girls, which includes our multi-award-winning That Guy campaign which seeks to challenge male sexual entitlement, as well as high-profile reporting on rape and serious sexual crime over the last few years.

“These may have encouraged people to come forward and report what has happened to them. However, we recognise that rape and serious sexual crime is still significantly under-reported.

“We continue to work to make sure victims are confident and supported in coming forward, knowing our dedicated, professional officers will fully investigate every report, regardless of when it occurred.”

Rape Crisis Scotland's helpline offers confidential short-term, crisis and initial support by phone, email, webchat and text.

Get in touch any day between 5pm to midnight:

Call: 08088 01 03 02

Text: 07537 410 027