“Advancing the rights of women and girls with disabilities” is a joint-UN project led by the UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa based in Harare. Other UN agencies that are part of the project are UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office. UNESCO is the lead agency and implement activities in partnership with the other UN Agencies as well as the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare; the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs; Disabled Persons’ Organisations and other disability actors such as the National Agency for Disability and the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped. The National Disability Board is also key partner together with the Special Advisor in the Office of the President on Disability Issues.
Persons with disabilities are a key constituency in Zimbabwe and are estimated to make up 7% of the popu-lation; however, they remain invisible in all levels of society and face numerous challenges in accessing healthcare, jobs, education, and justice. Moreover, women and girls with disabilities are particularly vulner-able to discrimination due to their marginalized gender. According to UN Women, one in five women in Zim-babwe live with disabilities but the figure may be much higher.
Culture is a significant driver in the marginalization of persons with disabilities. In certain Zimbabwean socie-ties, disability is associated with witchcraft; they consider it to be a curse and the birth of a disabled child as a bad omen for the family. This hostile view of disability translates to the low social acceptance and isolation experienced by persons with disabilities. Communities play a key role in perpetuating the discrimination and stigma; hence, the fear and shame surrounding disability propels parents to leave their children in solitary thereby segregating them from other children and the wider community. This form of protective abuse in-creases the likelihood of sexual violence and solidifies their invisibility in public sectors especially within the SRH and justice domains.
Women, particularly girls with disabilities, face unique issues due to the intersection of gender and disability. According to Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health & Child Care’s Living Conditions among Persons with Disability Survey, girls with disabilities are especially vulnerable to gender based violence (GBV) as they are twice as likely to experience sexual abuse relative to their male and female counterparts without disabilities. There are numerous factors contributing to this heightened vulnerability to GBV namely social isolation, the lack of support systems, and negative perceptions propagated by the shame and stigma surrounding disability, all of which together create a high risk environment in which abuse can go undetected.
Women and girls with disabilities face multiple barriers in accessing SRH services. The widespread miscon-ception of their asexuality result in healthcare providers ignoring their SRH needs despite the fact that they are just as likely as anyone else to engage in sexual activities. Physical access to healthcare facilities is also a critical issue as many are not equipped with ramps or assistive communication devices such as braille signs; as a result, disabled women and girls face numerous difficulties in receiving proper services. Moreover, the mere act of getting to a facility is challenging as accessible transportation itself is limited, and even when dis-abled women and girls manage to receive transportation, many face abuse. Despite the lack of SRH rights and heightened vulnerability to GBV, women and girls with disabilities have limited access to justice.
Disabled women and girls are significantly disadvantaged with regards to access to justice. There is very little accessible information on what to do after experiencing crime/ GBV not to mention police stations and court houses are poorly equipped to handle persons with disabilities; reason being, they have limited knowledge on dealing with disabled survivors and many resort to victim blaming. Furthermore, women and girls with disabilities face communication and structural barriers to receiving post-violence services.
If they see a woman with a disability like me near the place where a community meeting is being held, someone will ask a question like: ‘did we not clearly say we want to hold a serious meeting? Who brought her here to disturb us”
The project's overall goal is to advance the rights of women and girls with disabilities in Zimbabwe. Its specific objectives are:
- Amplify women and girls with disabilities’ voices based on evidence supported needs, aspirations and priorities;
- Advocate for improved response and prevention of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH); and
- Engender a human rights based approach to SRH service delivery and access to justice.
The project targets women and girls aged between 15-49 years from six provinces of Zimbabwe: Mashonaland Central, East and West, Matebeleland North and South and Harare provinces. The provinces were selected based on the UNFPA Country Programme Action (2016-2020) focus regions which shows that these provinces have high incidences of maternal mortality, HIV, GBV and child marriages. Normative interventions however are carried out in all of the country’s 10 provinces.
Expected Outcomes and Outputs
The expected impact of the project is “rights of girls and women with disabilities are advanced through their empowerment, conducive normative environments, and improved access to justice and SRH”. The project has the following three outcomes:
- Strengthened capacity of women and girls with disabilities to shape public discourse;
- Attitudes, beliefs and cultural norms of general public in 6 provinces changed; and
- Increased capacity of justice system and SRH services to respond to women with disabilities.
The project outputs indicated in the project document and shared by stakeholders include:
- Qualitative data on aspirations, needs/concerns, and priorities of target beneficiaries produced
- Policy recommendations on the rights of women and girls with disabilities produced;
- Research findings on the role of culture in disability-discrimination produced;
- Awareness raising campaign materials on disability rights produced;
- Qualitative data on experiences in the justice system produced;
- Disability friendly informatics on justice system processes produced; and
- Capacities of national human rights institutions to promote disability rights strengthened.