Hesperian Health Guides

Sexual assault and rape

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 14: Abuse, violence, and self-defense > Sexual assault and rape

Sexual assault means forcing a woman to have sexual contact she does not want. Rape is the most violent form of sexual assault. Rape happens any time a man puts his penis, finger, or any object into a woman’s vagina, anus, or mouth without her consent.

Sexual assault and rape of girls

Sexual assault and rape is extremely harmful to anyone. But the effect it has on girls can be especially hard and long-lasting. Because girls are not sexually mature and may not understand exactly how to explain what was done to them, they often have a difficult time getting anyone to believe them. In some communities, a girl who has been raped will never be ‘acceptable’ to marry.

In places where there is a strong military presence, girls are sometimes forced to be servants or ‘sex slaves’ for soldiers or armed groups. These girls are often disabled physically and emotionally as a result.

In some places, people believe that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS, and many very young girls, and even babies, have been raped because of this belief. Because their bodies are small, their genitals get badly damaged and they are more easily infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Getting help if you are raped or assaulted

Every woman’s experience with rape is different. But there are some things you can do to help yourself recover. First, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who can you ask for help?
  • Do you want to tell the police about the rape?
  • Where can you go for medical care?
  • Do you want to try to punish the rapist?

A disabled woman who is raped needs the same help as any other woman. It is important to tell someone you trust who can go with you to see a health worker, and help you decide if you want to tell the police. You may feel sad, hurt, scared or angry for a long time, so you will also need someone to talk with about your feelings. Choose someone who cares about you, is strong and dependable, and who you trust will not tell others. Your family or usual helpers may be too upset to be able to give you all the support you need.

a woman speaking with difficulty while another woman encourages her.
And ... and ... and then ...
Take as much time as you need. I will listen to you.

If you speak differently, you may find it hard to explain what happened, especially if you are upset. If you are ashamed or frightened, the words may be harder for you to say. Sometimes it helps to draw a picture to explain what happened.

If you are deaf

Women who are deaf or have trouble speaking can have a harder time getting help if they are raped or abused. Even though she may be able to describe her attacker, if no one understands her sign language, she will have a difficult time explaining to others what happened to her and who did it.

a woman using sign language.
When I went to the police because my husband was beating me, they did not understand my sign language and they were impatient with me. My co-wife defended my husband, and no one believed me.

If you go to the police

In most places, rape is a crime. But it may take a long time and be very difficult to prove you were raped. Make your decision to go to the police carefully. Have the police helped other women in your community who have been raped? If you want the rape to remain private, will the police keep others from learning about it?

a female police officer meeting with a woman in a wheelchair and another woman.

Never go to the police alone. In some communities, a woman who goes to the police alone is at risk for being raped again by the police. Be sure someone else can go with you.

If you want to report the rape to the police, you must go as soon as possible. Do not wash, shower, or bathe before you go, and do not change the clothes you were wearing. This can help prove you were raped. The police may ask you to have a medical exam from a doctor who works with the police. The exam can also help prove you were raped.

If the rapist is arrested, you will have to identify him in front of the police or in front of a judge in court. Going to court for a rape is never easy. Describing what happened may make you have the feelings of being raped all over again. Not everyone will understand. Some may try to blame you or say you were lying.

And some people will not listen to you because of your disability. They may believe a disabled woman cannot be a truthful or convincing witness. But some women with disabilities have been successful in court, especially when they have support from their community. When you decide to go to court, make sure you always go with someone you trust.

Health problems caused by rape

After a rape, it is best to see a health worker, even if you are not badly hurt. Tell the health worker you have been raped. She can help prevent and treat common health problems caused by rape.


You can prevent pregnancy if you act quickly and use emergency family planning. Speak with a health worker about this. Use emergency family planning as soon as possible after the rape, but no later than 5 days (120 hours).

Even if you use emergency contraception, if you do not get your next monthly bleeding on time, have an exam right away to make sure you are not pregnant. If you think you are pregnant, see a health worker. In some countries, abortion is legal if a girl or woman has been raped.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS

The man who raped you may have had a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or HIV/AIDS and passed it to you. A health worker can give you medicines to prevent STIs such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia even if you do not think you were infected. It is better to prevent an STI than to wait for signs of infection.

You should also try to have an HIV test in 2 to 4 weeks. Until you have a negative test result, it is best to use condoms if you have sex to protect your partner from possible infection. If you live in an area where many people have HIV/AIDS, you may want to talk with a health worker about taking medicines to reduce your risk of becoming infected.

Tears and cuts

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Rape can damage the genitals by causing tears and cuts. These can cause pain, but will go away in time. If there is a lot of bleeding, see a health worker who can stitch tears and give you medicine to prevent infection. For small cuts and tears:

  • Soak your genitals 3 times each day in warm water that has been boiled and cooled. You can put chamomile flowers in the boiling water to help with healing. Or you can put the liquid from inside the leaves of an aloe plant on the cuts and tears.
  • Pour water over your genitals when you pass urine so it will not burn. Drinking a lot of liquid makes the urine burn less.
  • Watch for signs of infection: heat, yellow liquid (pus), a bad smell, and pain that gets worse.

Bladder or kidney infections

After violent sex, it is common for a woman to have a bladder or kidney infection. If you have pain when you pass urine, or if there is blood in your urine, see a health worker. You may need to take medicine. It helps to drink a lot of water, at least 8 glasses a day.

a woman speaking.
If you are a health worker, always ask permission before you examine a girl or woman with a disability who has been raped or abused. This will help her feel she has control over who touches her.

Sexual relations after rape

You can have normal sexual relations after rape. You will need to wait until your genitals no longer hurt and any tears have healed. For many women, having sex makes them think about the rape. If this happens to you, talk with your partner about why sex no longer feels the same, why it frightens you, and why you need to wait.

Ask your partner to help you overcome your fear by gentle hugging and caressing that avoids touching your genitals. As you feel safer, you may be able to start having sexual intercourse again. But this takes time, and you will both need to be patient. A woman’s partner can make a big difference in helping a woman who has been raped, by being kind and understanding. But sometimes a woman’s partner may reject her after she has been raped. He may be ashamed and angry, especially if he believes that her rape dishonors him or if the community holds that belief. It may help to find someone in the community he can talk with about his feelings.

How you feel after the rape

The rape may still bother you long after your body has healed. Here are some common reactions:

a woman with a hearing aid having many different thoughts.
What did I do wrong?
If nobody else knows, maybe I can forget what happened.
It happened so long ago... Why can’t I just forget about it?
How DARE he have done that to me!
Maybe I was too sexy.

It is important for a woman who has been raped to talk to someone, or to do things that will help her feel better after the rape. Every woman finds her own way to heal. Some women perform a ritual. Others try to punish the rapist, or work to prevent other women from being raped. Whatever you do, be patient with yourself and ask others to be patient, too. For more information, see Chapter 3, Mental health.