Today is World Contraception Day. As we reflect on the role that birth control and reproductive rights have played on modern day society, we must not forget those who continue to be denied access to sexual- and reproductive health (SRH) services, such as women with disability. Disabled women are often denied contraceptives or sexual health services because they are perceived to not have sexual needs or sexual lives.
More than 15% of the world’s population is affected by disability, including physical, sensory impairments, developmental and intellectual disability and psychosocial disability. This means a significant portion of our population continues to experience discrimination on what is regarded as basic human rights.
In 2007, the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stipulated international law that all governments should guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health to people with disabilities. However, in practice, women with disabilities face challenges in accessing SRH services for a number of reasons:
- They are infantilised
- They are viewed as asexual or hypersexual (lacking control of sexual urges)
- They are viewed as incapable of reproduction or too weak to carry a pregnancy
- They are viewed as being unattractive or unfit for marriage or being sexual partners
These myths are far from the truth and are demeaning to people with disability. Yet, these prejudices continue to be the major deterrent in disabled women receiving SRH services. In part, these misconceptions make disabled women (and men) vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse within our societies.
There is silence in addressing the lack of access to sexual health services for disabled women. In contribution, the practice of forced sterilisation and abortions perpetuates the silencing and is in direct violation of disability rights. Our SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) policies do not support or uplift disabled women and this is worrisome. Not enough research is done to understand and recognise the sexual desires and needs of disabled women. Furthermore, we do not explore the intersectionality of gender and sexual dynamics that disabled people experience i.e. LGBTQ experiences.
Most non-disabled people, health workers in particular, have sometimes been described as being disinterested, lacking awareness and understanding of women with disability and their needs. There is failure in promoting inclusiveness. Many developing countries such as Zimbabwe still have general obstacles to overcome regarding SRHR. Unfortunately, in addition to those challenges we do not have policies that address the sexual and reproductive rights of disabled women.
How do we improve the challenges that are faced by disabled women? Well, we can start by:
- De-stigmatisation and providing information for better understanding
- Creating awareness for SRHR that benefit people with disability
- Improving access to health systems, facilities and services
- Improving home-based care and community outreach for client education
- Including disability in SRHR policies, laws and budgets
- Including women with disabilities in policymaking, strategizing and health research
In conclusion, there is still much to be done to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of persons with disability. It is important to have the conversation about disability and sexuality to remove prejudice and misinformation.