Being a woman with a disability is tough. You are always at the bottom of the food chain and that’s if you’re even considered in the first place. You don’t exist. You are invisible. You have no place.
When we speak of women’s rights, gender equality, women’s empowerment, gender-based violence and other issues affecting women, women with disabilities are often excluded. For example, when we fundraise to buy sanitary wear for the girl child, do we ever think of the girl child with a disability or she is not affected by such matters? When we advocate for the education of the girl child, do we also consider the girl child with a disability or she does exist? When we speak up against violence towards women, are women with disabilities included or is it that they don’t suffer from such issues?
A woman with a disability in Zimbabwe faces multiple challenges. For example, whilst an able-bodied woman can defend herself in times of danger, a woman with a disability is helpless at such times. She cannot defend herself. An able-bodied woman has other women to not only represent her but to also fight on her behalf whilst a woman with a disability often has no-one to fight for her and in many cases no-one is representing her. This then makes a woman with a disability both invisible and voiceless which further places her at risk.
My aim here is to discuss some of the issues a woman with a disability faces in Zimbabwe, including: social isolation, discrimination, lack of education, impairment, unemployment and the increased risk of being both
physically and sexually abused.
When a child is born with a disability, often there is a lot of finger-pointing as to who is responsible for the child’s disability. Many times parents and relatives will blame it on witchcraft. They will call the child ‘cursed’ and in-laws will blame the mother for the disability. In some cases, a mother is asked to choose between her child and her marriage. With such an attitude at birth you can only imagine the life the child will live. Such a child often lives an isolated life; isolated from society, isolated from other children in their neighbourhoods. They will have no friends, only their siblings and relatives if they are allowed to interact with them.
As this child grows – say it is a girl child with a disability- no-one will fight for her to go to school because no-one knows she exists. This isolation then makes girls and women with disabilities invisible to the rest of society. The result is that when able-bodied women fight for women’s rights, women with disabilities are often left out because society is not aware of their existence. After all how can anyone know of their existence when they exist apart from the rest of the world?
A woman with a disability in Zimbabwe faces double discrimination, first because she is a woman and second, because she has a disability. The woman with a disability not only faces discrimination from males but from females too. Discrimination against people with disabilities is a very prevalent issue in the nation of Zimbabwe. From my experience, it seems that the non-disabled sector is not yet willing to be open-minded about disability issues. Rather, they would prefer to just assume what people with disabilities want or need. What chance does a woman with a disability stand in such a society that discriminates against her?
Lack of Education
The girl child with a disability is at a much higher risk of not going to school than any other child in Zimbabwe. This is so because she is a child with a disability and because she is isolated from society. Again, because society does not know she exists, no-one will fight for her to go to school; no-one will fight for her right to get an education, no-one will fight for her to receive sponsorship to go to school.
When she grows up, whilst other women are able to look for a job, she cannot because is not educated. As an adult, the woman with a disability does not know she has any rights because no-one has ever taught her about her rights. Having no access to education, a woman with a disability does not know how to speak up for herself and furthermore she has no skills which places her at a high risk of poverty.
This lack of education then leads to unemployment. A woman with a disability who has not being educated, has no means of seeking employment. If I as an educated Zimbabwean woman with a disability has limited options for employment both in Zimbabwe and in Australia where I am currently based, what more an uneducated woman with a disability? Who would employ her? What kind of a job would she do? Her employment options are limited if any exist at all. Because she is unemployed, a woman with a disability has no choice but to depend on other people for her survival which means she will never gain her independence.
Without stating the obvious, women with disabilities are born at a disadvantage in life because of their impairments. Whether it is a visual, physical, hearing or speech impairment, it puts her at a huge disadvantage. For example, how does a visually impaired woman communicate to her care givers that she has started her period? When she initially gets her first period because she cannot see, does she know what is happening to her body or she just simply assumes that she wet herself? How does a woman with a physical impairment on a wheelchair change herself? Contrary to popular belief out there, the impairment ensures that a woman with a disability is not on the same playing field as an able-bodied woman. The impairment places her at the bottom of the food chain.
Increased Risk of Being Physically and Sexually Abused
By virtue of having an impairment, a woman with a disability is at an increased risk of being both physically and sexually abused. Edmore Masendeke of The Diary of a Disability Advocate wrote extensively on this last year. The risk factors which he identified that lead to women with disabilities being at a higher risk of being physically and sexually abused are: social isolation, impairment, lack of access to sex education, learned helplessness, social myths, cultural perceptions of impairment, the road to school, the school environment, the home environment, lack of economic power, reporting challenges and barriers within the legal system. You can read more here, here and here.
These are just some of the issues that women with disabilities in Zimbabwe face. It is imperative to note that not every woman with a disability in Zimbabwe will face any or all of these issues. Each individual’s case is unique. The challenges the particular woman will face is dependent on her disability and her support system, if she has any at all.
So what is the way forward?
The first step will be to actively seek out where these women with disabilities are in your communities. Talk to us. Establish relationships with us. Spend time with us. Get to know us, who we are, what our disabilities are, what our challenges are, what we would like help with if we need any help at all. From then on, consult us on how you can involve us in your discussions, programs, workshops etc. Please do not make any assumptions about what we need, we are the experts of our lives.
If you want to help, contact any of these schools for children with disabilities: St Giles, Tose Respite home, Jairos Jiri, St Johns Emerald Hill, Danhiko project. Visit them and have a chat with the school heads and teachers and see how you can help educate and empower the girl child with a disability. The little that you can do will surely go a very long way in ensuring that girls and women with disabilities are not forgotten but rather they are given the same opportunities as other women.
The girl child and the woman with a disability have been long forgotten in Zimbabwe, let 2015 be the year we change this. Let’s make it happen for women with disabilities!
Main Image from http://youthvillage.co.zw/