13 year old, Tanyaradzwa Munyoro* has speech and hearing impairment. She was raped on her younger brother’s watch and he could not stop the abuse. Tanya who has never been to school, cannot use sign language, thus she found it difficult to communicate what had happened to her
Although Tanya is able to converse with her mother she never told her what happened. On noticing that her daughter’s stomach was swelling, Tanya’s mother took her to the hospital. To her shock and disbelief, Tanya’s mother was told that her daughter was pregnant. The young brother was able to help the family to identify the perpetrator but Tanya’s case has remained unresolved.
A sign language interpreter was of no use, her mother could not stand in the court of law interpreting for her child. The court ruled that Tanya had to be taught sign language for justice to take its course. This decision was blind to the fact that Tanya was already pregnant and that some decisions that needed to be made in her case like termination of pregnancy are time bound.
As unfortunate as Tanya’s case is, she is actually among the few fortunate ones. For the majority of women and girls with disabilities in Zimbabwe – silence after abuse is the order of the day.
“It’s fine for a woman with a disability to be violated because we are of no use and cannot amount to anything,” laments Rosemary Karidhoza, the Secretary for Bindura chapter of the National Council of the Disabled Persons of Zimbabwe (NCDPZ).
The Disability Scoping study by Charowa and Lang (2007) noted that the plight and situation of women with disabilities is particularly precarious, because they are invariably subjected to harassment, sexual abuse and exploitation. It goes on to say the sexuality of people with disabilities is hardly understood and often not given adequate attention or discussed by society and family members. This has even resulted in people with disabilities not being commonly regarded as a community that is vulnerable to HIV or affected by AIDS.
Merencia Mukozho who is physically challenged says, “We keep quiet because our sexuality is questioned and we are not taken seriously even when we have had the courage to report abuse at local police stations.”
Nyasha Maseruka who is also physically challenged says disabled people are caught between a rock and a hard place because they are not fully accepted in our society. She says perpetrators believe they will be doing them a favour by ‘sexually exposing them’, a ‘priviledge’ they otherwise would not have experienced.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that women and girls with disabilities are up to three times more likely to be victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and rape. They face multiple forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on their gender and disability – making them more isolated, marginalised, and vulnerable to violence. As seen in Munyoro’s case, the justice system in Zimbabwe is not friendly to Persons with Disabilities (PWDs).
“We are viewed as not mentally stable or capable to stand and represent ourselves in the court of law,” says Maseruka.
The availability of resources needed by any person with any disability to fully represent them in a court of law is not fully guaranteed.
UNWomen notes that women with disabilities are invisible both among those promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, and those promoting gender equality and the advancement of women.
Faith Mpofu, who is visually impaired says ever since she became blind five years ago, she has been insulted several times. It began with her boyfriend telling her, that he found it pointless to stay in a relationship with a blind person.
Psychological abuse among PWDs is rampant and has become a norm. Women and girls with disabilities lose their self-esteem, confidence and purpose in life as a result of abuse.
Karidhoza says the majority of women and girls with any form of disability have no or little knowledge on ways of reporting or mitigating gender based violence (GBV). Whilst they have to deal with stigma and discrimination because of their disabilities, GBV only worsens their situation.
The Disability Rights Director at Human Rights Watch, Shantha Rau Barriga argues there has not been maximum efforts made to ensure that all communication on GBV caters for women living with disabilities.
“When these issues are discussed we not there, as a result we are abused without knowing it, she stated”
The Zimbabwe National Gender Based Violence Strategy was produced after consultations with key stakeholders yet some women and girls with disabilities feel the document does not speak to some of their needs.
“Women and girls with disabilities are too often the victims of violence, yet get too little information on where to go for help,” adds Barriga.
The Zimbabwe National Gender Based Violence Strategy indicates that survivors of GBV require comprehensive care and support. It also speaks to the issue of ensuring that comprehensive services are available to GBV survivors. These include the needs of women and girls with disabilities such as accessibility to shelters and reasonable accommodation.
According to the World Health Organisation disability affects 15% of the world’s population and is more common among women than men. Women with disabilities have poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than women without disabilities.This is not to say that people with disabilities are not capable, but it is because their special needs that make their operating environment friendly are not met.
Women and girls with disabilities need to have have the platforms to speak out. This will ensure that policies addressing GBV can incorporate their needs and ensure that they are protected in every sense of the word.
*Not her real name
Sally Nyakanyanga is an independent journalist based in Zimbabwe focusing on gender equality, human rights, development/humanitarian stories and bilateral trade between China and Africa. She has written for Inter Press Services, News Deeply, Irin News, Africa Renewal, Science and Development Network, ChinAfrica magazine, and the Mail and Guardian “Voice of Africa” online publication. She is also a 2016 fellow for International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Africa Great Lakes Region Reporting Initiative.