Access to justice for disabled women

The Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe Trust has embarked on a new project aimed at preventing and responding to violence against girls and women with disabilities.

Entitled Access to Justice for Girls and Women with Disabilities, the project will run for three years until the end of 2017. Girls and women with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual, hearing or speech impairment, are often vulnerable to violent attacks and sexual abuse.

They often lack adequate information on how to respond to such attacks. They frequently find it difficult to access justice for a variety of reasons, including difficulties in making themselves understood. Police stations do not generally have officers who understand sign language, for instance.

Through this programme, the Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe Trust intends to provide girls and women with disabilities throughout the country with information and help them obtain justice in the event of their being attacked.

Sign language

Such assistance may include the provision of sign language interpreters to assist the police or courts.

It may also include facilitating travel, where, for instance, it is difficult for them to travel to a police station, hospital or court or where the court requires a psychiatric assessment of a person with intellectual impairment, which currently can only be provided in Harare or Bulawayo.

Christabel Nyakanyanga, who is project officer for the Access to Justice for Girls and Women with Disabilities project, says about 80 percent of the cases of violence against women with disabilities reported to the trust involved sexual violence against girls or women with intellectual, hearing or speech impairment.

“These girls and women are particularly vulnerable because the perpetrators of this abuse think they can infringe on their rights and no-one will ever know,” she said, adding that often the abuse only came to light when the victim became pregnant or contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

Children abused

She said some of the children who were sexually violated were babies or toddlers. In rural areas children were often abused on their way to school or when they had been sent outside the home to do chores. “For children with disabilities the incidence of such abuse is high, especially among those with hearing impairment, speech impairment or intellectual impairment, as they are perceived as not comprehending what the perpetrator has done,” she said. Elderly people hardly able to walk or with a visual impairment were often violated when they were left at home alone. Sometimes they failed to identify their attacker.

Some of the violence was due to cultural beliefs that sleeping with a person with a disability would result in the amassing of wealth or the healing of a particular illness, she said.

She said some of the barriers girls and women with disabilities faced in obtaining post-violence services and information included attitudinal barriers, communication barriers, physical inaccessibility of some places where services were offered, lack of information packaged in accessible formats and, in rural areas, long distances from their homes to service providers. There was also insufficient knowledge on the handling of survivors with disabilities among service providers such as those in the judiciary, police, health institutions and mainstream women’s organisations.

Nyakanyanga said the trust had collaborated with the Judicial Services Commission by providing disability expert services, such as the services of sign language interpreters and intellectual experts. In addition to assisting victims of violence or abuse obtain justice, the project includes awareness campaigns and sensitisation meetings within communities.

“The community at large is often unaware of the vulnerability of girls and women with disabilities and hence they are not protected,” she said.

The trust hopes the project will reach about 1 900 girls and women with disabilities in all the country’s provinces, excluding the metropolitan provinces of Harare and Bulawayo.

About 900 of these girls and women are expected to be survivors of some form of violence. These will be helped to access justice and other necessary services.

Access to justice

Key project activities will include providing survivors of abuse with expert services and logistical support to enable them to access justice, as well as the training of girls and women with disabilities on issues surrounding gender-based violence. They also include raising awareness of the problem and the training of members of the police force and judiciary on disability issues, including sign language.

Education Communication materials such as braille and audio recordings will be used to communicate information on gender based violence to people unable to see and be adapted into acceptable formats for people with other types of disability.

The project is one of a number of projects run by Leonard Cheshire Zimbabwe Trust to assist children and adults with disabilities in various ways.

Other projects include the trust’s inclusive education programme, which facilitates the integration of children with disabilities into local schools, and livelihoods programme, which helps adults with disabilities obtain employment or start their own business projects.