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Layers of Discrimination: Disabled Women in Zimbabwe

Editor's Note: This article is part of Gender Link's Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news. It was first published through the Service in September 2005.

"We do not network with people with disabilities. What will [people] say if I am seen having a meeting with you? You have to stay indoors and ask the Department of Social Welfare to assist you with food."

Can you imagine what it feels like to be at the receiving end of this comment? I can tell you, it is painful and upsetting. These words were spoken to me by an influential and well-respected director of a woman's organization in Zimbabwe as I attempted to get an appointment to share the work of the Disabled Women Support Organization (DWSO) with her.

Her attitude is reflective of many in society who view disabled people as useless liabilities who have no role to play in society. And there are many of our sisters who, instead of showing us empathy and supporting us, discriminate against us, as the statement above shows.

Our work in Zimbabwe has shown that women with disabilities experience extreme discrimination, which is compounded by their disability. Sexual violence, which is fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region and which affects all women alike, is reportedly on the increase amongst women and girls with disabilities.

A report by Save the Children Fund, Norway, in December 2004, revealed that the sexual abuse of children with disabilities is on the increase in Zimbabwe. The study found that 87.4 percent of girls with disabilities were reported to have been sexually abused. Approximately 48 percent of these girls were mentally challenged, 15.7 percent had hearing impairments and between 12-25.3 percent had visible physical disabilities. Out of the 87.4 percent who had been sexually abused, 52.4 percent tested HIV positive. Sadly, the situation is similar in Namibia and Botswana.

Despite the high rate of HIV infection amongst women with disabilities, our access to voluntary counselling and testing facilities and centres is severely limited. This is due to a number of reasons, including the biased attitude of staff towards people with disabilities; the physical construction of buildings; and the lack of information available on HIV/AIDS in braille or staff who are able to use sign language.

Disabled people have particular experiences as a result of social exclusion, marginalization, vulnerability, isolation and other social, economic, political and cultural factors. Already more vulnerable, poverty combines with these factors to render disabled women at even greater risk. In Zimbabwe, women and girls are the poorest of the poor.

The recent Operation Murambatsvina being carried out in Zimbabwe since May this year is worsening the situation. I was shocked at the announcement made on national television on June 26 that people with disabilities and the mentally ill would be taken to institutions! How can we be put into institutions when we are fighting to be integrated into society?

I want to remind my sisters that there is a need to promote the inclusion, integration and human rights of women with disabilities in our work across all sectors. It is important that an environment be created to encourage and support the participation of women with disabilities in structures and processes that affect our lives. No decision that affects us should be made without our input. After all, there is "nothing about us without us".

Gladys Charowa is a single mother who has been living with disability since December 2001, after a car accident that left her wheelchair-bound. She is the founder member and Executive Director of Disabled Women Support Organization (DWSO), an organization that focuses on women and girls with disabilities.