We Investigate

Prioritise sexual health and education of adolescents with disabilities

When teenagers with disabilities seek sexual health reproductive services, they frequently hear, “You are disabled, why are you even having sex?”

This exemplifies the level of discrimination that individuals with disabilities face on a daily basis.

Despite the fact that one billion people worldwide have some sort of disability, individuals with disabilities are among the most marginalised and discriminated against.

Because most countries prioritise lowering childhood mortality in conformity with global targets, addressing disability is typically placed at the bottom of priority lists in the overall agenda of child and adolescent health.

Only a few countries provide enough quality services, and despite having a National Disability Policy in place, Zimbabwe has a long way to go of implementing policies that include children with disabilities (CWDs), youth with disabilities (YWDs), or adolescents.

“When adolescents go to hospitals for sexual health and reproductive services, they experience a lot of discrimination. They are not only young, but they are disabled young people, which makes things difficult for them. They face discrimination because society does not expect them to be sexually active. That’s when people start saying, ‘isilima senkosi,’” said Shantel Ndebele, a child expert, lawyer, and Programmes Officer at the Sexual Rights Centre (SRC), on key challenges that mostly affect young people with disabilities.

Ndebele also pointed out young people with disabilities are among Key Population groups who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

“It’s even more difficult for them now that they’ve identified as such, because the assumption is they shouldn’t be having sex because of their disability. What happens when they come out and declare, ‘I’m a person of different orientation?’ The stigma is worse so these young people prefer to confine themselves at home,” she said.

As a result, adolescents with disabilities have no meaningful social life, as they become outcasts in society, neither can they access sexual health services.

“Some can rot in the house if they have sexually transmitted infections. These adolescents also find themselves victims in many circles -sexual, physical and other things. The girls find themselves pregnant yet are not economically productive,” Ndebele said.

Exclusion from mainstream society, according to Ndebele, is a key challenge for young people with disabilities.

“They are unable to interact with their peers in an effective manner because they face restrictions,” she said and resultantly most CWDs or YWDs end up at Jairos Jiri centre where they interact with people like themselves.

“Young disabled people grow up in the periphery of societies and when they are older they want to join society but are now welcomed. This is because attitudes towards them are still very stringent. As much as older people who are disabled face challenges, it is worse for young people.”

Disability Advocate and Action in Disability and Development (ADD) International Ambassador for Asia and Africa, Soneni Gwizi, said when society excludes children with disabilities from any developing agenda and fails to provide all needs of CWDs, YWDs and adolescents, it automatically cuts the future of the generation of people with disabilities.

“This created a poor society among the disability community. We must make sure the inclusion of children with disabilities, youths with disabilities is counted in, starting with education, health care and meaningful welfare care,” she said.

She emphasized young people with disabilities struggle to fit in since they were excluded at a young age, despite the fact that all human beings have a right to information, education, health, and protection.

“The majority of children with disabilities come from a very poor family background where their families cannot or either struggle to put food on the table. They can’t afford to provide assistive devices, which are a must in any PWDs life,” said the disability advocate.

On June, 9, 2021, President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched Zimbabwe’s National Disability Policy to address marginalisation and discrimination of persons with disabilities and set standards for their inclusion in all facets of life, thereby serving as an overarching policy framework on disability across all sectors.

“This is a legal binding policy that should be acted upon by all sectors of society, the private sector and the government while it makes sure inclusion of children with disabilities is actioned,” Gwizi said.

However, Gwizi regretted that society has disregarded this policy, as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international convention adopted by Zimbabwe on September 23, 2013, and the country’s constitution, when it comes to disability inclusion.

Section 83 of Zimbabwe’s constitution says the State must take reasonable measures, within the limits of its resources, to ensure people with disabilities reach their full mental and physical potential.

According to the constitution, the State must enable the disabled to become self-sufficient; allow them to live with their families and participate in social, creative, or recreational activities; protect them from all forms of exploitation and abuse; provide access to medical, psychological, and functional treatment; and provide State-funded education and training where needed.

But Gwizi argued extra measures have to be taken to make sure adolescents enjoy their rights including education, healthcare and importantly implement these.

As a solution, Ndebele believes communities must assert and affirm rights for children and adolescents with disabilities.

“Start by providing and safeguarding the rights of PWDs in general and then young people with disabilities specifically. If you have noticed, the approach in Zimbabwe is to take a medical one where people say ‘oh this young person has a disability, let’s take them to hospital’ rather than addressing the barriers that make life challenging for them,” Ndebele said.”

Ndebele also said shifting approaches in favour of a more human rights based approach that recognises people with disabilities as people who are deserving of rights is best.

“Let’s have an initiative to promote those rights, not as people who are sick and in need of medical interventions,” she said.

Secondly, prioritisation of disability issues or policy making is crucial.

“Set aside money when making the budget to create infrastructural development that PWDs can access. Have specialist teachers teaching the young. Provide sensitisation of health care workers, teachers and other service providers so that they are able to offer disability inclusive, gender responsive and adolescent friendly services,” said Ndebele.

“When visiting a hospital, no one should raise an eyebrow to wonder why this person with a disability is there, but rather be prepared to assist them.”

The lawyer also said empowerment initiatives are needed for young people with disabilities.

“We need disability specific grants or economic initiatives that will take into cognisance the special circumstances people with disabilities have,” she said.

“Even if there are loans from Empower Bank, do they suit young people with disabilities? We need to make sure YWDs participate and are at the same level with their able bodied peers.”

According to the lawyer, Zimbabwe has a sound legal structure because the law guarantees those rights, but implementation is lacking.

“Bringing those rights into reality is still a challenge,” Ndebele said.

“There should be policies that make sure those rights are achievable and that society is adaptable so that young people with disabilities can thrive and stop the continuous cycle of poverty.”

She remarked that young people with disabilities are not raised to be economically productive or independent from the moment they are born.

“They are forced to over rely on their peers or families. Society has not been adapted enough that people with disabilities can also live meaningfully and be productive. They are reduced to a lifestyle of begging on the streets, which is where we see them, but we don’t really see them in very prominent spaces,” she said.

In terms of education, Ndebele said most adolescents with disabilities do not go beyond primary school and some who are still in primary, are sent to special classes.

“You discover primary schooling is the end for most children who are disabled. Only a few actually make it past high school and very few make it to tertiary education,” said the child expert.

Ndebele stated that Zimbabwe is still a fairly conservative nation, dominated by traditional and cultural ideas.

“When some people look at disabled children, they see a chikwambo (goblin), and they automatically become social outcasts, despite the fact that as young persons, there is nothing they can do to improve their circumstances,” said the child expert.

The Story is published with support from the Voluntary Media Council (VMCZ) and the Embassy of Canada in Zimbabwe under the  Investigative Journalism Fund Programme.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button