As a young woman, I’ve engaged in activism and advocacy on certain issues to help get disability rights recognized and acted upon. It is my pleasure to share my perspective, expertise, experience, observations and recommendations to improve HIV prevention for adolescent girls and young women (AGYW), especially people with disabilities (PWD). I am pleased to be a member of the #WhatWomenWant Working Group. It has given me an opportunity to hear other adolescent girls and young women with disabilities share their experiences, and identify gaps for advocacy in prevention of HIV. I would like to extend my gratitude to the ATHENA Network for this splendid opportunity and for being inclusive.
I am a young woman with an impairment. I have spinal scoliosis which limits some of my activities; thank God I have a very supportive family. I was sent to school and completed my diploma in education 2 years ago, which has empowered me and built my confidence, so that today I can stand and fight for my rights and those of fellow PWDs. I have been working with the National AIDS Council and NGOs for PWDs, which have created platforms for me to learn a lot, especially about HIV/AIDS. I have been trained as a peer educator and counselor on various issues surrounding HIV.
As a young woman with a disability, I see many barriers to HIV prevention among us. Most people don’t understand disabilities, hence why our needs as a group are generalized. People often confuse our impairments, e.g. if someone has a physical disability, people will assume they are mentally challenged as well. At some point, I visited a clinic and inquired for STI screening services and the nurses there looked at me in astonishment as though I might have been mentally disturbed to ask for those services since I’m disabled. This brings me to my next barrier…
There are misconceptions around women and disability, and this has hindered us from getting services which address our needs. Some policy makers and even service providers think that we are asexual or that we don’t get into relationships at all. There are no policies to protect our rights to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and HIV services. We have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of PWDs (UNCRDP), though since it has not been adopted here in Zimbabwe you cannot sue if there are no policies that talk of our rights as PWDs. Our country’s constitution does not clearly state the health rights of PWDs, so no one is held accountable if AGYG with disabilities don’t access services.
There is a barrier of communication as well. Service providers such as police officers, teachers, nurses and doctors are not well conversant with sign language or how to handle clients with visual impairment. Information catering to this specific group doesn’t exist, especially IEC materials. Implementers complain that making these materials is costly, and sometimes it’s a matter of ignorance to their part. AGYW with disabilities are abused sexually due to the language barrier, and their cases die a natural death.
Infrastructure in Zimbabwe is not accessible to PWDs especially where we want to get services. I wonder why the government approves plans to be built if wheelchair users cannot access those buildings. You can find a testing service center located the 2nd floor with no lifts, which means that person is going back without help.
I strongly feel that if these barriers are addressed, HIV prevention can target AGYW with disabilities. Policy makers should not assume that services are reaching us, because not all AGYW with disabilities are out in the open. More must be done to assess if we are being reached. People and policy makers should know that it is vital to include us in programming as we have among us those who are infected - we are also sexually active.