ONE hot Sunday morning in April, 24-year-old Masuzyo Bupe (not real name) was excited as she looked forward to receive her once in a life time visitors in form of representatives from the family of the man who had shown interest to marry her.
However, her happiness was shortlived as her mother informed her that there would be no normal marriage negotiations or bride price for her because she was a woman living with disability.
Her mother said the man was actually helping them as a family by marrying her.
Despite her ‘un-ceremonial’ marriage the following weekend, Masuzyo was still excited about her union.
She looked forward to her new home with her husband.
But when she got married, her happiness did not last.
She tried to access Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) at the nearest health facility as the couple started planning for their family.
Upon examination, the healthcare provider informed Masuzyo that that she was permanently sterilised and was not capable of having a baby.
Masuzyo later discovered that she was sterilised at a tender age by her parents to prevent more disabled “descendants” in the family.
Elsewhere, Masuzyo’s friend, Patience, who was also living with a disability, visited a health facility to access SRHR services and the healthcare provider asked her what she needed the contraceptives for since she had a disability.
When time came for her to get a family planning injection, the pregnant nurse who was attending to her refused to touch her saying she would transfer the disability to her unborn child.
Masuzyo and Patience are not the only ones as many women and girls living with disabilities suffer grave violations of their SRHR, such as forced hysterectomies or forced use of contraception that can eliminate or reduce menstruation which is done on them without their consent.
These women and girls with disabilities are mistreated and dehumanised in Zambia and beyond, by the very people they expect to love and help them.
According to statistics, approximately 15 percent of the world’s population (one billion people) lives with some form of disability.
The vast majority (80 percent) of people with disabilities live in developing countries.
The women and girls with disabilities account for almost one fifth of the world’s population of women and they are just as likely to be sexually active as their peers without disabilities.
Further research shows that women with disabilities face problems of infantilisation and disempowerment, abortion and contraception.
They disproportionately suffer from all forms of violence, substantial barriers in accessing justice, discriminatory attitudes, norms and behaviour rendering them invisible, and a lack of accessible and appropriate SRHR information and services.
In Zambia, human rights advocate Musola Kaseketi called for the respect of human rights for people with disabilities.
“Women and girls with disabilities have the same SRH needs as women and girls without disabilities and, therefore, barriers should be removed and there should be equality in accessing SRHR services for all,” Ms Kaseketi said.
She explained that in Zambia, Vilole, which isher organisation,has embarked on a countrywide programme to ensure disability quality training and respect of the rights of people with disabilities.
Speaking at one of the training sessions held at Kabwe’s Enclave Lodge last month, Ms Kaseketi called upon people with disabilities to understand their rights.
“The biggest challenge we face is that many people with disabilities, including women and girls, do not know their rights. For this reason, as an organisation, we are promoting a social model based on human, legal and national rights that is targeting all sectors of society on the importance of the rights of people with disabilities and the need to uphold them,”she said.
Ms Kaseketi said for the programme Kitwe, her organisation had invited the clergy, Government and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), as well as the people with disabilities, to educate them on the rights of the latter.
She said a lot of people in society do not know that women and girls with disabilities have a right to SRHR because they think such women cannot get married and as such, they should not have SRHR, let alone have children.
“The other time one woman with a disability went for antenatal and all nurses at the health facility mocked and condemned her saying she cannot even feel sorry for herself by choosing to get pregnant,” Ms Kaseketi said.
She said the women and girls living with disabilities are not expected to love or be loved by society.
Ms Kaseketi, who is also the Vilole executive director, said her organisation is also using film as well as other image productions to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, especially the women and girls.
“We are using films to talk about those issues, initially viewed as taboos by our society, and these are issues to do with sexual reproductive health rights for people with disabilities. Films make it easier for us to drive the need for society to respect the sexual and reproductive health rights of people with disabilities,” Ms Kaseketi said.
She said sex and disability has been a ‘taboo’ in Zambia and many other societies in Africa.
As a result, film triggers and provoke people to talk about such issues openly and respect the SRHR for people with disabilities.
“These issues have been secretive from time immemorial and it is now time for all of us to come out in the open and find solutions. This is especially important because Zambia was voted as vice president to the Convention on the Rights of Disability,” Ms Kaseketi said.
She said parents do not allow the disabled to have children because they think such individuals are not normal.
Despite the maltreatment, thegirls and young women with disabilities face difficulties in accessing justice because they usually fail to report incidents of abuse due to fears of retribution, abandonment, single parenthood and losing custody of their children, as well as doubts about whether they will be believed.
Physical and communication barriers in the justice system,such as sign language interpretation, alternative forms of communication and support services that are age and gender sensitive are also not available.
The discrimination and stigma against the girls and women makes them to be ashamed of themselves,with some reportedly hiding their disability from a potential partner for fear of rejection.
This makes others to be willing to have unprotected sexual activity because of the need to be loved and accepted is more important to them than their own safety.
“I went to the gynaecologist once but she refused to talk to me because she said she does not work with ‘abnormal’ people,” a woman with a disability told Plan International researchers.
According to the United Nations Working group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls, the full enjoyment of SRHR is indispensable to the ability of women and girls to exercise all other human rights and for the achievement of gender equality.
In finding a solution, researchers have called for a human rights and gender equality framework, guided by international treaties and development commitments such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to guide all future work in assisting women and girls with disabilities and ensure that all barriers are removed.
Harmful and forced practices related to SRHR, including forced sterilisation, forced abortion, and forced use of contraception, should be criminalised, besides ensuring the prosecution of offenders.
States must also ratify and fully implement core conventions and agreements relating to SRHR of the women and girls with disabilities, particularly the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Parents and educators should be also trained to support girls and young women with disabilities to learn about their bodies, relationships and sexuality from early childhood through to adulthood for them to thrive in all stages of life.
As Viloleis already doing through films, it is necessary to discourage vices that prevent the full realisation of the SRHR of the girls and young women with disabilities in Zambia and beyond.
“We need to start with triggering and provoking people to start addressing these issues facing women and girls with disabilities in their quest to access sexual and reproductive health rights,” Ms Kaseketi said.