In Zimbabwe, women and girls make the largest number of people who are marginalised and abused in society. The situation becomes a double tragedy when that women or girl is living with disability, of which girls and women living with disabilities.
Persons living with disabilities – those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others – have the same sexual and reproductive health needs as other people. Yet, they are abused and often face barriers to information and services. Further, the ignorance and attitudes of society and individuals, including health-care providers, raise most of these barriers – not the disabilities themselves, a fact supported by the National Survey on Disability: Key Findings Report (2013).
Discrimination and abuse
Women with disabilities still face challenges in accessing health care, mainly because most health personnel have the perception that people with disabilities are not sexually active, a fact supported in a position paper compiled by the Disabled Women in Africa, an organisation established to give a voice to women with disabilities in Africa and to empower them to claim their human rights wherever they are violated, and presented to the ministry of Health and Child Care recently.
Attitudes by health personnel towards persons with disabilities are generally negative. As a result, women with disabilities, especially those who are deaf, find it difficult to interact with health practitioners as well as access health services. The end result is that they do not frequent health institutions, therefore compromising their health needs. Tariro*, 32, who has a physical disability, said women with disabilities always feel marginalised and violated whenever they seek knowledge on family planning and other health related issues. She added that most health practitioners struggle to understand what deaf and mute women need as they are not formally trained in sign language. Another reason why women with disabilities shun clinics and hospitals is because there is an inadequate supply of user-friendly facilities like adjustable beds in most – if not all – public health centres, especially in rural areas.
Furthermore, women with disabilities are prone to abuse as they are always perceived to be asexual. Due to stigmatisation, prejudice and discrimination, some sections of Zimbabwean society still think women with disabilities do not have rights to enjoy sex as well as access health-related information. Negative comments such as ‘varume havana tsitsi shuwa kuitisa chirema pamuviri’ are popular and show that we are still far away from accepting the conditions of people with disabilities. Further, women with disabilities are often raped by men who hold strange beliefs that such violence can cure ailments like HIV.
Overhauling the nursing training system
To protect and promote the sexual and reproductive rights of people with disabilities, there should be an overhauling of nursing training system to include sign language as a compulsory language for all those intending to join the health sector. The government should ensure that all health alerts have sign language, provide interpreters in health settings, train deaf women as nurses so as to increase access to health and train health practitioners in basic sign language. Without doubt, increased information in sign language will improve wellbeing for the women, their children as well as their partners. Remember, good communication is the bedrock of diagnosis and treatment.
Health workers should be sensitised on the use of disability sensitive language. They should also be urged to always use people-first language – the use of respectful and accurate terminology that is preferred by people living with disabilities, and avoid using words that reduce individuals to a series of labels, symptoms or medical terms. This, therefore, means statements such as ‘munoiitirei nhumbu imi muri zvirema’ should not be tolerated. Using disability sensitive language is respectful and empowering, as it places the emphasis on the individual, as opposed to defining that person by their disability.
To borrow the words of Canadian-American psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden , the first step towards change is awareness; the second step is acceptance. Current awareness programmes are crucial in promoting the sexual rights of women with disabilities. Organisations dealing with people with disabilities should raise awareness so as to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.
Disability should be integrated in development programmes
Like other cross-cutting development themes such as gender, youth, environmental sustainability that have been mainstreamed in development programming, disability should be integrated in development programmes. For this to be achieved, policy decision makers, health service practitioners, traditional leaders, programmers, development partners should ensure disability is mainstreamed in all sectors of programming and service delivery.
To ensure healthy lives and promote the wellbeing of all at all ages, the government, guided by the Constitution of Zimbabwe as well as the World Health Organisation Action Plan “Better Health for Persons with Disabilities” which draws from the provisions and recommendations of the United Nations “Convention on the rights of the Child” (UNCRC), the United Nations “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” (UNCRPD) and the World Disability Report (WHO 2011), should also consider sexual and reproductive rights of people with disabilities when developing and implementing strategies, bills and policies. Further, the government, as the biggest stakeholder in the country, should take note of the fact that free and informed consent is the basis for the provision of healthcare to persons with disabilities, especially girls and women since they are vulnerable.
Main image taken from www.hrw.org