By Partinella Ngozo
In Zimbabwe women with disabilities face numerous challenges in accessing sexual reproductive health. Covid-19 pandemic has negatively impacted lives of women living with disabilities resulting in increased health challenges and societal marginalisation that negatively impacts every facet of their lives. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) women with disabilities need greater access to sexual reproductive health services than the able-bodied counterparts.
In Zimbabwe, Sexual and Reproductive Health issues came into the limelight in 2006 when government formulated the National Reproductive Health policy .The policy offers family planning, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, maternal health but surprisingly the policy offered few intervention forwards women with disabilities. Section 76 of the constitution states that, everyone should have access to basic health care service including reproductive.
Speaking in an interview with this reporterDeaf Zimbabwe Trust Communication Officer Tinotenda Joan Chikunya said that woen with disabilities are vulnerable to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Communication barrier are also the biggest challenge facing persons with disabilities. For women with hearing impairments the situation has gone worse lately due to Covid-19 since most professionals do not understand sign language especially nurses, this has made it difficult for people with hearing impairments to access relevant information on SRH.
“Masks have made communication less effective for the deaf as they communicate through signs and facial expressions. Masks cover facial expressions, therefore transparent masks or face shields are better for people who are deaf to ensure effective communication. Women with disabilities face stigmatisation and have often been denied information about sexual and reproductive health. Many have been subject to forced abortions or forced marriages, sstatistics from United Nations Population Fund one in three women aged 15 to 49 in Zimbabwe have experienced physical violence and one in four women say they have been targets of sexual violence at the age of 15. The number of girls with disabilities being sexually abused is likely to be much higher”,she said.
Chikunya also added that she is concerned with how people treat persons with disabilities as if they do not have the same sexual and reproductive health as other people and often regarded as second citizens. Cultural believes still regard them as sexually inactive.
“News about covid vaccines , preventions and help line and facilities are rarely packaged on sign language, Braille, leaving out the deaf and visual impairments people at risk of getting wrong information for example deaf women on access to contraceptives there is usually the issue of language barrier where a deaf person may go to a health centre and may need to know more on the types of contraceptives available and their benefits but health service providers will not be able to assist as there is no sign language interpretation at these centres resulting in most deaf women being given contraceptives which are wrong due to communication barriers,” she said.
Chikunya urged the government to provide disability management training and sign language training for health service providers for inclusion to be realised.
Young Voices Disability Zimbabwe director Nyasha Mahwende highlighted that her main concern as a young woman with disabilities is thatyoung women and girls with disabilities are usually kept in the dark about their SRH. She further added that often do not know how to protect themselves against sexual transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy.
“Girls and young women with disabilities are usually viewed as asexual due to our cultural beliefs and are not provided sexual education to make choices about relationships and sexuality resulting in some of them being abused or having unwanted pregnancies”, she said.
Mahwende also added that, most health centres are not disability friendly to young women and girls with disabilities.
“For example, if one goes seeking family planning usually the nurses use discriminatory language as if we don’t have the same sexual rights as our physically fit counterparts and sometimes they shout at us that makes us feel as if we are not humans resulting in most of the young women and girls not seeking treatment,” she said.
National Council of Disabled Persons of Zimbabwe (NCDPZ) women’s wing Chairlady Joyce Togarepi also stated that Covid-19 made life harder for persons with disabilities since most hospitals and clinics are further away especially for those in rural areas and some must walk long distances .
“Many hospitals in Zimbabwe were not constructed with people with disabilities in mind. The hospitals do not have ramps to help those with wheelchairs. Most buildings are inaccessible and facilities resulting in lack of privacy for women with disability,” she said.
Togarepi urged government to introduce mobile health centres for easy access to SRH services.
“We need freedom on movement to access SRH services and amongst the nurses one should be a person who has taught sign language for effective communication and quality services and they should always include a PWD as well so that the right terminology is used to address the sexual reproductive issues,” she said.
SRHR specialist as well as DREAMS CPS facilitator for Zimbabwe Health Intervention Organisation Mercy Kaseke said that, SRHR is central to young people development including women with disabilities it is key in achieving gender inequality and reduces cases of gender-based violence. According to demographic health data for Zimbabwe, nearly 40% and 24% of boys are sexually active before they reach 18.
“As an organisation we are implementing a Determined, Resilient, Empowered, Aids Free Mentored and Safe (Dreams) program mainly focusing on adolescence girls and young women for both physically challenged and those living with disabilities since research has shown that the age group has most new HIV infections by far compared to boys and young man of the same age group. Due to poverty and lockdown restrictions, we will be equipping them with SRH information, eliminating poverty by offering them Economic strengthening Interventions and educational assistance so far we have started rolling the project in Bulawayo, Gwanda and Matopos,”she said.
Kaseke also added that it is crucial for organisations and the government to bring SRHS services to communities through community mobilisation with teams of SRHS personals to cover gaps even for women living with disabilities so that they have access to health services as well.
“There is need for conducive environmental rights for adolescence girls to realise and claim their sexual reproductive rights,” she said.