Sexual violence against females with disability has not received much attention from society, yet they are more likely to experience physical, emotional, sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
The challenges are not necessarily limited to females with disability, but their neglect often reflects the lack of social attention, legal protection, and support to ensure their holistic wellbeing.
Maame Asaabea (not her real name) is a 28-year-old physically disabled mother of twins, who was once sexually abused in her hometown.
She recounts how men in her circles assumed that because she is disabled, she may not be attractive enough to be proposed to.
“Some of the men think I need sex, so they offer to do me a favour by wanting to sexually abuse me, in the community where I live now, I feel threatened by the presence of one man who monitors me consistently. Sometimes, late at night, around 11 p.m. he will knock on my door and say; “Hello Asaabea, I think you need to be serviced,” she said.
Maame Asaabea, who uses two elbow crutches due to her fragile legs, gave birth to her twins in January 2021, after she was sexually abused by a neighbour in her hometown.
She lived at Anum in the Eastern Region during her infancy until she completed Senior High School and relocated to Accra to live with a relative in search of a meaningful job to fend for herself.
One Easter Monday, Asaabea paid her family a visit at Anum and decided to see a classmate to exchange pleasantries and discuss life’s matters.
On her way to her friend’s place, she met another childhood male neighbour, Mr Atsu, who was going her way and offered to give her a lift. On their way Mr Atsu asked to give Asaabea a treat before dropping her at her mate’s home, to which she agreed.
At Mr Atsu’s residence, he offered Asaabea a fruit juice, which the poor lady drank but started feeling weak afterwards and insisted that Mr Atsu took her to her mates’ home immediately, but he turned a deaf ear and raped her. Asaabea could not defend herself and went back home feeling terribly abused.
Asaabea’s complaints to her family were not given the needed attention because her Auntie thought she was not sexually attractive to be raped by a “vibrant man” like Mr Atsu until her family realised she was pregnant.
Mr Atsu was confronted but he denied raping Asaabea so her family advised that she aborted the pregnancy, but she kept it and gave birth to the twins. Asaabea now lives on donations from family, friends and benevolent people in her neighbourhood.
Like Asabea, the Sexual Reproductive Health Rights of many females with disabilities are ignored by society and even family members.
Research by the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit of the Ghana Police Service indicated that women and girls with disability are three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse compared to others.
Good sexual and reproductive health is said to be the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system.
This implies that all persons, including females with disability, must have access to accurate information, safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable contraception of their choice with the know-how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.
The World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund guidance on promoting sexual and reproductive health for persons with disabilities estimates that 10 per cent of the world’s population – 650 million people – live with a disability.
Persons with disabilities are identified in the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as, “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which, in interaction with various barriers, may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.
Females with disabilities have the same sexual and reproductive health rights and needs as other people, yet they often face barriers to information and services. The ignorance and attitudes of society and individuals, including healthcare providers, contribute to most of these barriers and not the disabilities per se.
Mrs Christiana Nkrumah, the Vice Chairman of the Ghana Disability Forum (GDF), explains that in most cases in Ghana, people who abuse females with disability are their close relations, persons who cater for them and even leaders they look up to in their churches.
She said the victims live with the abuse without reporting for fear of stigmatisation and losing financial support from the abusers who are mostly their caretakers.
“Empowering them financially and with adequate information on their Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) with a source of livelihood, would enable them to voice out, stand up to their rights and minimise sexual abuses against them,” she said.
Mrs Nkrumah called for extensive education for females with disability and the need for proper reporting mechanisms and conducive environments to encourage them to report sexual abuses and any form of violence.
She stressed the need for the public to be enlightened on the SRHR of persons with disability (PWDs) and how to support and protect them from such violence.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, the first legally binding international treaty on disability, which came into force on May 3, 2008, states that the SRHR of PWDs deserve attention because their needs have been so widely and so deeply neglected.
Historically, PWDs have been denied information about sexual and reproductive health and rights and this calls on governments to consider their needs.
In Ghana, existing services like the Domestic Violence Call Centre, created by the Ministry of Gender and Social Protection, can be expanded to accommodate SRHR concerns of females with disabilities, but increasing awareness is still the first and biggest step.
Beyond that, much can be accomplished through resourcefulness and involving PWDs in programme design and monitoring.
Disability is everyone’s business, and the Government must work with development partners, non-governmental and civil society organisations to eliminate specific forms of discrimination against PWDs as regards their reproductive rights, household and family formation.
This feature was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project, in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists, with support from the Ford Foundation.