Women with disabilities face more abuse

Women with disabilities in Zimbabwe continue to suffer violations of their sexual and reproductive health rights despite the fact that the government has ratified the United Nations convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. Pamenus Tuso reports from Bulawayo.

HIV-positive and disabled women suffering from sexual transmitted diseases are harassed and booed when they seek treatment at hospitals and clinics. –Irine Moyo
HIV-positive and disabled women suffering from sexual transmitted diseases are harassed and booed when they seek treatment at hospitals and clinics. –Irine Moyo

Women with disabilities are at high risk of abuse due to stigma and discrimination, as well as lack of support structures and lack of information about how they can protect themselves.

Speaking to The Zimbabwean during a sexual and reproductive health and HIV rights awareness campaign for women with disabilities in Bulawayo last week, women with disabilities said they were also still facing serious challenges in accessing family planning methods and maternity facilities in public health institutions.

“Women with disabilities are being sexual abused on daily basis because most of our public facilities are not friendly to disabled women. Sexual abuse is particularly rife in public transport, where touts take advantage of unaccompanied disabled women commuters,” said Lizzie Longshaw, a social worker with the Disability HIV and Aids Trust (DHAT).

Longshaw, who is also living with disability, said she had been a victim of sexual abuse several times.

“There was a man who, each time I boarded the commuter omnibus, always sexually harassed me,” she said. “He would always ask for sexual favours, He only stopped troubling me after I took him to my house and showed him my kids,” said Longshaw.

Longshaw also noted that more disabled women were involved in unstable relationships than able-bodied people because of social sanctions against marrying a disabled person.

Irine Moyo said a lot of disabled women were abused but were afraid to come out in the open because of biased attitudes towards people with disabilities.

“The attitude of staff at institutions such as the police station and hospital, tends to be one of hostility towards people living with disabilities. In most cases a disabled rape victim is ridiculed and blamed. I personally know a situation where a police officer at a particular police station openly told a rape victim that she should thank the rapist because, if she was not raped, she was never going to enjoy the pleasure of sex in her life,” said Moyo.

She said HIV-positive and disabled women suffering from sexual transmitted diseases were also harassed and booed when they sought treatment at hospitals and clinics. She bemoaned the lack of proper family planning facilities for disabled women.

“I cannot use a female condom because, with the nature of my disability, I cannot crouch. To me, this is discrimination because I cannot protect my sexual rights. To make matters worse there is also no condom use information in Braille and most of our staff at health institutions are unable to use sign language,” said Moyo.

Lindiwe Sibanda echoed Moyo’s sentiments.

“Women with communication impairment are at greater risk because they are not able to disclose abusive experiences. We need to adopt a disability mainstreaming policy so that we can achieve equality for people with disabilities in all areas of society.

“The government, service providers and other mainstream organisations should be compelled to incorporate inclusiveness in all their planning, policy development, legislation, resource allocation and programme implementation,” suggested Sibanda.

Hamida Mauto, Disability HIV and Aids Trust country coordinator, said most abusers of women with disabilities were walking away scot-free because the police and the judiciary had serious challenges and shortcomings when dealing with cases involving disabled women.

“Women with disabilities are denied justice due to a lack of resources at police stations and courts. There is no alternative communication for those who cannot comprehend spoken or written language. We need to give these institutions the resources to effectively deal with these issues,” said Mauto.

She said cases of abuse of women with disability were on the increase in Zimbabwe.

“There is this primitive and weird belief that women with disability have high sexual libido. Some people think also HIV/AIDS can be healed by sleeping with a disabled person. These are some of the things that are fuelling sexual abuse against women with disabilities,” said Mauto.

According to a report by Save the Children Norway, sexual abuse of children with disabilities is on the increase in Zimbabwe. According to the report, 87.4 per cent of girls with disabilities had been sexually abused. Approximately 48 per cent of these girls were mentally challenged, 15.7 per cent had hearing impairments and 25.3 percent had visible physical disabilities. Of those who had been sexually abused, 52.4 per cent tested positive for HIV.

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