Women with disabilities at higher risk of GBV, HIV/AIDS

Women with disabilities at higher risk of GBV, HIV/AIDS

Date: December 5, 2011
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Silvia Chungu,* now 14 years old, was born borne disabled in a village in Phalombe District, southern Malawi. When her father found out neither of her legs functioned properly, he divorced her mother just a few months after the baby girl’s birth. He married another woman after vowing that he could not be a father of a crippled child, saying someone else must have impregnated his wife.

The girl’s mother brought her up alone until the girl was six. After her mother died following a long battle with breast cancer, Chungu went to live with her grandmother, who was the only one in the extended family willing to accommodate and care for her.

“My grandmother used to carry me on her back to drop me at school, and again collect me after classes,” she recalls.

After turning 10, the determined girl told her grandmother not to bother carrying her to and from school anymore, saying she would be managing through crawling alongside the other schoolchildren in her village. One day her friends left her behind after school. On her way back home, a 45-year-old man from her village who had been suffering from AIDS related infections for a long time dragged her to a nearby bush and raped her.

Despite being diagnosed HIV positive, the man believed his uncle had bewitched him after the two quarrelled over a piece of land some months before his illness started. He visited a “witch doctor,” who gave him a concoction to drink and thereafter advised him to have sex with any woman with disability, regardless of her age. Having sex with a woman with disability, the man was told, would cleanse the deadly virus from his body, curing him of HIV and AIDS related infections completely.

A week after the traumatic experience, with support from some villagers, Silvia reported the matter to the police and the hospital. Police promised to investigate the matter. The man who had defiled her committed suicide after being tipped that the police were after him.

However, by then, she had already contracted HIV from the rape. Since then, Silvia has been bedridden due to HIV and AIDS related infections. Lucky enough however, she is now on anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, along with 400,000 other patients in Malawi.

Disability, the United Nations (UN) says, is a functional limitation that may occur in any population in any country in the world. The organisation further says disability may be permanent or transitory, and can be physical, intellectual or sensory impairment, a medical condition or mental illness.

A study by Norwegian researchers Marit Hoem Kvam and Stine Hellum Braathen from the Oslo based SINTEF Health Research in Malawi, revealed that violence and abuse against women with disabilities in the country is rampant, yet many cases go unreported.

“Women with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to violations of human rights than women without disabilities,” they said. “And much indicates that the violence and abuse is hidden. There is a lot of stigma and shame connected to sexuality and disability, as well as neglect of women with disabilities in Malawi.”

Sigere Kasasi, Executive Director for Disabled Women in Development (DIWODE), an organisation working to empower women with disabilities, said the revelations in the study reflect reality. “Women with disabilities are very prone to violence. Due to their various disabilities, it can be very difficult for them to defend themselves against any aggressor,” she said.

Kasasi added, “Many women with disability face double discrimination, arising from being women first and also in having a disability. This places them at a disadvantage, making them prone to marginalisation and a vicious cycle of deprivation leaving them susceptible to abuse.”

In another research ‘Disability and HIV/AIDS – a systematic review of literature on Africa’ by Jill Hanass-Hancock of the Health Economics and HIV and AIDS Research Division (HEARD), University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, also noted a growing concern about the sexual abuse and exploitation of PWDs in Malawi.

“In Malawi, PWDs revealed that they are often forced into their first sexual encounter. Although sexual abuse is a reality for many people with disabilities in Africa, only a few cases are reported,” said Hancock. “The double stigma of disability plus HIV and AIDS might also make it difficult to disclose HIV status, particularly in the case of women who depend on their families, friends, boyfriends or husbands.”

In Malawi, there is an urgent need to put in place measures to protect people with disabilities (PWD), especially women from acts of discrimination and gender violence that can lead to HIV and AIDS. While women in Africa face a wide number of challenges, women with disabilities in face even more difficult living conditions. Disability indeed can be both a cause and consequence of GBV.

Frazer Potani writes from Malawi. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism


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