Uphold Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women in their Diversity: Intersection between GBV and Disability

During the #16DaysOfActivism, it is critical to recognize the profound ways in which gender based violence affects women and girls. Beyond that, it is also important to amplify the experiences of women and girls in their diversity and understand that women are affected differently depending on their experiences and situations. December 3 marks the International Day of Persons with Disabilities which falls within the 16 Days of Activism, AF writer Catherine Nyambura had a chat with Sarah Musau, Co-Founder and Programs Director of Gifted Community Centre in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. She looks into the unique experiences and needs of women and girls with disabilities in relation to Gender Based Violence (GBV) and priorities that should inform programming and policies.

Young women who work at the centre.

We are in the #16DaysOfActivism, what are the unique ways in which women and girls with disabilities experience #GBV, especially in the world of work?

It is unfortunate that women and girls with disabilities experience gender based violence yet theyrarely report to the relevant authorities. Due to the vulnerability of women with disabilities by the virtue of them being disabled, they are at a higher risk of being sexually harassed and unfortunately this happens from their assistants and workmates/bosses. Since they would like to be helped (case in point, a woman using a wheelchair will need assistance to be helped to move around/ a person with visual impaired will need a sighted guide/ a hearing impaired will need a sign language interpreter etc) this kind of dependency most are times is abused. Those you would believe should be of help are the ones abusing you. In addition, this vulnerability and dependency has been used quite a lot to emotionally abuse girls/women with disabilities. Unfortunately it becomes hard to report such cases as they are dependent on their abusers to live (as most believe).

Furthermore, most workplaces are inaccessible, and therefore the need to be supported to access some of these amenities such as toilets (where there are stairs and one needs to be lifted), their right to privacy is violated where many times they are touched inappropriately, and this continues to such an extent that the perpetrators deem it right. Social stereotypes, and myths about women/girls with disabilities such as sleeping with a girl with disability cures AIDS has placed women with disabilities at very high risk as many would want to experiment with them. This in turn creates a lot of insecurities, stigma, and many times depression to women with disabilities, which in the long run affects their work performance leading to losses of their jobs.  

What are the gaps and key barriers in the GBV response for women and girls with disabilities?

For women with disabilities, their disabilities are seen first before recognition that they are first women . This has been a big impediment to GBV response where women with disabilities are concerned. From their caregivers, to the relevant authorities, to the duty bearers, to other women. It is worth to note that there are many projects running in Kenya and beyond focused on women and GBV, but unfortunate that, hardly do they involve women with disabilities, and as much as the GBV awareness creation is made through mainstream media and other mediums, a big number of women with disabilities are illiterate and also cannot access these mediums. Women and girls with disabilities are a category of people that has for decades been excluded and overlooked in GBV, HIV/AIDS response and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Programming. This exclusion has exacerbated and normalized the barriers they face to accessing information, services, treatment, care and support. Poverty, increased vulnerability to sexual violence and abuse, limited access to education and health care, and lack of information and resources are some of the major barriers women with disabilities are battling with.  In addition, lack of accurate data on the number of women with disabilities in Kenya is another challenge since for our rights to be fully respected, protected and provided, we must count. Some of the structural challenges that compound the situation is the fact that GBV response service providers lack knowledge about disability, are misinformed and have negative attitudes towards women with disabilities which limit them even to seek their services. This is in addition to already inaccessible facilities, lack sign language interpreters, and information provided not in formats accessible such as Braille or audio.

What are the key enablers to young women with disabilities in accessing HIV and other Sexual and Reproductive Health services?

Women with disabilities need to first be recognized as women. The terminologies used to describe them matter a lot, and so is the need to belong. Women with disabilities want to be involved, and included in the decision making table to contribute to the policies that concern their bodies/lives. They would be able to access SRHR when the facilities are accessible, the service providers are well trained on disability issues, when the society accepts them as they are and the need to recognize and respect diversity.  In addition, they need information, they need education, they need empowerment, they need independence, and they want their dignity upheld to be able to gain the courage and serenity to think of seeking of SRHR/HIV services.

What does the end of #GBV mean to you and other young women and girls with disabilities? What is your top priority for this?

It means being recognized as women who have a right to choose what to do with their bodies, and their choices/decision respected. It means being included in that decision making table, and given the microphone to say as it is, and contribute in that policy. It means other women without a disability recognizing, respecting and involving women with disabilities in their GBV based programs. It means an end to dependency which in turn creates a sense of independence and choice to live fully. It means being able to work with others and their spaces respected, it means no more threats from caregivers/assistants. It means living a holistic life. My top priority is to ensure inclusion and participation at the decision making tables, where women with disabilities say it as it is and their voices amplified. We are already doing this at Gifted Community Centre, where we give them a chance to be speakers during our Live Twitter Chats, and other offline campaigns/forums.

What role can everyone play to accelerate progress in ending GBV for women and girls with disabilities?

Everyone can contribute to ending GBV on women and girls with disabilities by first making the environment accessible to enable women/girls with disabilities access the facilities/professionals who respond to such cases. Everyone need to recognize and respect that a woman comes first before the disability and thus more awareness needed on this, and respecting women with disabilities despite. Everyone needs to reach out to girls/women with disabilities at their communities and encourage them to report any case of GBV. Empower women/girls with disabilities to remove the dependency they have on their abusers. Celebrate them on whichever milestone they make however small. Give them a chance to air out their views, do not judge them, let them put a full stop then take over from there. Unless, we respect, protect, and provide for the rights of women with disabilities in regards to their bodies/lives, then sustainable development goals will remain just a song. Everyone matters. Leave No One Behind.

Catherine Nyambura is an African feminist passionate about amplifying African women and girls daily lives realities. She is an SRHR expert with vast experience in women’s rights, community mobilization, digital media engagement and young feminist organizing.

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