HARARE, Zimbabwe – When Miriro Tsunga was 12 years old, her grandmother noticed her stomach was bulging. When she took her granddaughter to the hospital, it was discovered that Tsunga, who has cerebral palsy, was seven months pregnant. She had been raped.
Tsunga, now 15, is severely disabled – she can’t walk or speak, and needs someone to feed and bathe her. Unable to communicate, she couldn’t tell anyone who had raped her, where or when, and she couldn’t receive any counseling to help her cope with what had happened to her. Two months after her pregnancy was discovered, Tsunga gave birth to a baby girl who was immediately put up for adoption. Tsunga’s cousin, who was 14 at the time, eventually confessed to the rape – he was arrested, then released with a warning.
Tsunga’s story is all too common in Zimbabwe, where women with disabilities are especially vulnerable to the gender-based violence (GBV) that affects a large portion of the female population. According to the United Nations Population Fund, one in three women aged 15 to 49 in Zimbabwe have experienced physical violence and about one in four women say they have been the targets of sexual violence at least once since the age of 15. The social worker who handled Tsunga’s case (and who asked not to be named) has dealt with four other cases of local girls with disabilities, three of them under the age of 16, who have become pregnant as a result of rape. One of the girls was also infected with HIV. The number of girls with disabilities being sexually abused is likely much higher, says the social worker, but unless they become pregnant, those around them may never know they are being abused.
Activists in Zimbabwe say that while women and girls with disabilities are more often the victims of violence, they get little or no access to support services and legal assistance aimed at GBV victims. Part of that is due to the fact that research on how GBV affects women with disabilities is fairly new, so there are no reliable figures to measure how widespread the problem is.
“Due to the discrimination and stigma linked to disability, cases of GBV among women and girls with disabilities are rarely given the attention they deserve,” says Rejoice Timire, director of the Disabled Women Support Organisation. “Most of the perpetrators are their caregivers,” the very people who are supposed to speak for these women, says Timire. “Hence the cases remain unreported.”
When it comes to GBV – from reporting the crime to finding justice to counseling – women with disabilities in Zimbabwe struggle against a system that fails to recognize their specific needs. They are rarely consulted on policy development and programming aimed at tackling GBV, and activists say there are no accommodations made to help women and girls with disabilities get access to police or legal counsel. A lack of personnel who are trained in dealing with disability issues, as well as limited education opportunities for disabled people, makes it difficult for women and girls with disabilities to report sexual violence, and for authorities to follow up on cases quickly.
“Women and girls with disabilities face physical, institutional and communication barriers that hinder their full participation and inclusion, even on issues that directly affect them,” says Irene Sithole, a gender activist and lawyer who is herself visually impaired.
Disabilities campaigners would like to see the government take more responsibility for the protection of disabled women and girls. Zimbabwe has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but the convention still hasn’t been domesticated. The country’s Disabled Persons Act is ineffective, say activists. And while the department of social services has put in place community childcare workers as a way of trying to curb the abuse of young girls, few are trained on how to handle cases involving girls with disabilities.
“The GBV legal instruments and plan of actions should specifically target women and girls with disabilities,” says Pamela Mhlanga, director of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN). “Their issues should be well articulated, and explicit as distinct and important, to be addressed in a specific way.” For example, she says, services should employ people who know sign language to meet the needs of deaf women. And information on recognizing and reporting GBV should be widely accessible in braille and audio formats.
At Musasa, an organization based in Harare that offers counselling, health, legal services and shelters for survivors of domestic violence across the country, director Diana Sisipenzi agrees there is a need for more focus on women and girls with disabilities. “We have faced communication challenges, particularly with clients who are hearing and speech impaired,” she says. There are plans under way to teach Musasa counselors to use sign language to allow them to offer deaf women the same assistance and life-skills training as they do other women.
Education and raising awareness should also extend into disabled communities, say advocates. “Information on gender-based violence needs to reach the people who need it most, especially women and girls with disabilities,” says Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Nyasha Museruka, 26, a teacher and disability activist, says in many cases women and girls with disabilities aren’t aware of their rights and don’t recognize that they are victims of abuse, even as it’s happening to them. “Women and girls with disabilities are not aware of GBV, and as such, they will continue to live in violent environments and will never know where and how to get help,” says Museruka.
But Mhlanga of the ZWRCN says women and girls with disabilities have to be proactive in advocating for their own rights. They have to make themselves heard in a system that is failing to pay attention to their needs, she says. “Women and girls with disabilities need to be more vocal and network more to ensure they are involved in spheres of influence of power that matter,” she says.