Women with Disabilities Facing Indescribable Danger

In Ethiopia, the plight of people with disabilities has long been ignored or pushed aside. Various myths and misconceptions face people with disabilities in their quest for recognition and inclusion. But for women living with disabilities, this is not the only hurdle they have to face. As in many developing countries, women in Ethiopia who live with disabilities face the added challenge of sexual and gender based violence. Although there is no clear consensus on the number of victims, many women with disabilities in developing countries face the same problem. EBR’s Menna Asrat reports.

In Ethiopia, as in many developing countries, people living with disabilities often slip through the cracks of the system. But in a country where dangers like early marriage and rape face women every day, disabled women especially can become easy targets for those trying to prey on vulnerable victims.
Ayelech Taye (name changed to protect her privacy) is a 30 year old woman. She was born with a congenital spinal condition that makes it almost impossible for her to walk. Like many of the women living with disabilities in Ethiopia, Ayelech finds herself feeling invisible in society. “My parents didn’t really allow me to socialise with other people,” she says. “I’ve always felt unseen in my life. They wouldn’t really let me be with friends my own age, even when they wanted to play with me.”

Ayelech is one of the many women living with disabilities in Ethiopia who has had to face sexual attacks. When she was 15, during a time when her parents weren’t home, she was attacked and raped by an acquaintance of her father’s. “I told them what happened, but they didn’t go to the police,” she says. “Instead, the man apologised to my father through the traditional way of mediation by elders, and that was the end of it. He didn’t apologise to me.”
Although the exact numbers of people living with disabilities in Ethiopia haven’t even been accurately assessed, Ayelech’s experience shows that women living with disabilities are facing a great danger.

Of course, whatever the reasons, people living with disabilities in Ethiopia have faced an uphill battle for recognition and inclusion. But, in Ethiopia, women with disabilities are likely to have suffered from acts of violence like rape, beating, insulting, undermining, unsuitable physical environments, and a lack of employment as well as educational opportunities

Women with disabilities in Africa and all over the world have long struggled to overcome challenges that come with their conditions-but there has been little done for them specifically. There have been very few in depth studies in Ethiopia that concern sexual assaults of women with disabilities, which makes the number of victims very difficult to assess.

It is just another aspect of the fight for recognition. Beliefs and attitudes towards disability lead some families to hid children born with mental or physical issues, leading to them becoming targets for predators.  Even the specific vulnerability of women with disabilities, according to experts, can be traced back to the myths that surround people living with disabilities. While attitudes and beliefs to disability may differ within communities and families, in many cases they are influenced by the reigning socio-cultural norms, including myths that lead to increased violence. In a 2011 study by the African Child Policy Forum in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia, there is a persistent belief that childhood disability was caused by the mother’s sin or promiscuity, an ancestral curse or demonic possession. In some instances, it was the stigma associated with these beliefs that caused families to hide their children with disabilities or to exclude them from school and their communities. Another very common misconception is that people with disabilities are asexual.

Rigebe Gebrehawaria, an activist for disabled rights, agrees with this stance. “Sexual violence emanates from a power difference,” she explains. “Women are powerless compared to men and that makes them vulnerable to sexual violence. Women with disabilities are even more powerless than able bodied women, and that puts them in an even more vulnerable position. The reality is that people think that people with disabilities are sexually inactive and that men are not sexually attracted to women with disabilities. This creates a favourable condition for perpetrators.”

Despite this, however, activists and advocates say that not much has been done in terms of providing recognition and protection for people, and especially women, with disabilities. “To think about protecting women with disabilities from sexual violence, one needs to be aware, and recognise the fact that they are vulnerable to such violence,” says Rigbe. “For women with disabilities to demand protection, they need to be recognised as sexual beings, and as more vulnerable to violence. There are attitudinal barriers that prevent access to seeking justice, not to mention the physical barriers.”

One of the least talked about aspects of the health of people with disabilities is their sexual health, which compounds the problem. In some parts of Africa, one of the most significant myths that face young people with disabilities is the belief that people who have a sexually transmitted infection can cure the infection by having sexual intercourse with a virgin. Young women with disabilities are at particular risk of rape by infected individuals because they are often incorrectly believed to be asexual – and thus virgins, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP).

On top of that, the reproductive and sexual health needs of women with disabilities tend to be ignored. The accompanying stigma and misconceptions about disability – along with a lack of accessible health services in many rural and even urban areas, limited personal autonomy, and little to no sex education – prevent young women with disabilities from leading healthy sexual lives.

Young women with disabilities are not seen as needing information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights – or as being capable of making their own decisions. As a result, girls with disabilities have even less knowledge about sexual and reproductive rights than their male peers. Low levels of sexual education, including education about HIV transmission and prevention, often translate to risky sexual behaviours. Young women with disabilities are routinely denied access to family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services. According to the UNFP, only 35Pct of young people with disabilities used contraceptives during their first sexual encounter, and 63Pct had had an unplanned pregnancy.

The situation is even worse for women living in institutions, where their rights to bodily autonomy and to make decisions for themselves are routinely violated. They are the most likely to suffer forced abortions, forced sterilizations and sexual violence.

But at the heart of the problem is visibility. Ethiopia uses the definition of disability developed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to describe persons with a disability, according to the DCDD. In this Convention, disabled persons ‘include 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.’ But while official recognition is given to the issues face by people with disabilities, the reality on the ground is still far from ideal.

One problem is the tendency by many to ‘choose’ one or a few people with disabilities to speak for their whole community. “Most of the problem there emanates from the media narratives that tend to focus on some because that is the easy way to go,” says Rigbe. “It saves time and energy since you don’t have to research and look for people with disabilities where they are. People also tend to generalise and weigh the capacities and needs of persons with disabilities according to the few visible people they see. This leads to a tendency to see people with disabilities as a homogenous group, which ignores the diversity of their needs and capacities.”

But whatever the reasons behind their vulnerability, women like Ayelech still struggle to keep a positive outlook in the face of all they have had to deal with. “I sometimes think it would be better if I hadn’t been born,” says Ayelech. “Some years ago, I was even thinking about killing myself. But I’m still here, so I think maybe there’s something better for me down the road.”  EBR

8th Year • Mar.16 - Apr.15 2019 • No. 72


Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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