by Rosemary Okello
- Kenya -
In the face of escalating of sexual violence in Kenya, women with disabilities are more vulnerable than ever. A recent study by the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA-K) - a women’s rights advocacy organization that works for gender equality through legal aid - reveals that disabled women are up to three times more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse than their non-disabled counterparts.
Miriam Muto agrees. Program Co-coordinator for the Empowerment Resource Development Center in Nairobi and Vice Chairperson of Women’s Challenge, she points to a tragic misconception, “There is the belief that if one sleeps with a disabled woman, there are chances of a cure for AIDS.”
13 year old Nekesa, who is both physically and mentally disabled, was raped because of these myths. She has since given birth to a normal child, but is oblivious to what is happening around her.
“Society believes that we are not sexually attractive. When a disabled woman tests HIV positive, people normally raise eyebrows of incredulity to the point of even asking how people with a disability can have sexual feelings,” says Muto, who adds, “My disability does not affect my womanhood.”
She describes her daily experiences as a commuter on public transport as a traumatizing ordeal. “I have to be lifted up by men to get in and out of the vehicle. Some of them touch me inappropriately.”
“At one time a matatu tout asked me,“Si wewe hufurahi ukishikwa shikwa?” (You must be happy when men touch you all the time). This memory brings tears to her eyes.
She also recounts how she was once mugged on University Way in Nairobi: “I was in a public vehicle when thugs beat me up and took my purse. When I screamed for help, they pulled out a dagger.”
Her fellow passengers ran off, but there was little she could do to escape, being limited in her mobility. “Fearing that I could be raped, I jumped from the matatu (mini-bus), but in hindsight I realize that the experience could have disabled me further,” she says.
Another young woman in a wheelchair asserts that these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. “The reality is much worse, and the real story is yet to be told. Rape and sexual abuse for women like me is an everyday occurrence. When we are raped, we don’t know where to go or who to report to. There is always the fear that something worse could happen to you (by reporting).”
During the 2008 16 Days of Activism campaign to fight gender-based violence, participating organizations such as the Coalition on Violence Against Women in Kenya, FIDA-K and others acknowledge the challenge of addressing the problem when there exists no data that separates violence against the disabled from the rest of the population.
Despite various indicators showing the prevalence and disturbing nature of abuse perpetrated against women with disabilities, such violence is rarely acknowledged. Society’s negative perceptions and ostracism of women with disabilities affords them an invisible status, resulting in increased exposure to violence and fewer opportunities for recourse.
Social Stigma, Inadequate Services
Duncan Mwangi, Executive Officer for the Association of the Physically Disabled, says that society perceives disabled women as a bad omen. Men who cohabit with disabled women usually come home late and leave early in the morning so that they are not seen with them.
“They are not allowed to inherit property because of their disabilities and this leaves them destitute and poor,” explains Mwangi.Nairobi resident Amana Ali adds that mothers have been divorced for bearing children with disabilities: “My sister was divorced for bearing a baby boy with mental impairment. Her father-in-law said, ‘the earlier you get rid of her, the better for everyone. These things do not run in our family.’”
Kenya’s last official census5 (1989) estimated that 0.7% of the total population (then estimated at 21.4 million) was disabled. This figure is widely regarded as a gross underestimate. Today, the government estimates that 5% of the population is physically disabled and yet the UN asserts that 10% of every country's population is disabled in some way. Given Kenya's current population of nearly 38 million, the country's disabled could range from 1.9-3.8 million people, mostly with deformed limbs and eye afflictions resulting from poor birth-delivery conditions.
“Since disability is stigmatized in Kenya, many families tend to lock their children indoors, so knowing the exact figures of how many people are disabled in Kenya - especially women - can be very tricky,” explains Ms. Nyaundi.
A needs assessment survey carried by the various NGOs indicates that mental disability is highest among women, followed by physical then visual impairments.
Even if violence against women with disabilities is recognized, available services are often inadequate and strewn with obstacles. After navigating precarious roads and ramps too steep or too narrow for wheelchairs, the women find that national service providers lack the training and resources to meet their needs. The women are usually then referred to separate organizations specializing in disability.
Ms. Muto adds that those with hearing and visual impairment have been compromised. “There is a communication barrier in terms of dissemination. Information contained in posters is not available in Braille, which is a major drawback in terms of making information accessible to everyone.” Often no sign language interpreters are provided for the deaf. The same exasperating scenario applies to women who seek justice in the legal system, where the majority cannot afford legal fees.
Ms. Nyaundi argues that the rights of women with disabilities are being violated every day because of a lack of clear laws and policies guiding the handling of their issues. Though Kenya does have a Sexual Offenses Act, issues that affect women with disabilities were never spelled out within the legislation.
“Unless the issue of disability is enshrined within the Constitution,” she points out, “issues like the sexual abuse of women with disabilities in Kenya will not get the serious attention they deserve.”
Kenya has ratified and domesticated international laws on people with disabilities, yet implementation is lacking – particularly with regards to legal and human rights.
Taking matters into their own hands, the disabled in Kenya formed a taskforce in 1997 and presented a draft bill based on information collected from people with disabilities all over Kenya. In April 2003, the bill was brought before Parliament for discussion and was finally enacted. Dubbed the Persons with Disabilities Act 2003, the Act defines disability as a “physical, sensory, mental or other impairment, including any visual, hearing, learning or physical incapability, which impacts on social, economic or environmental participation.”
Even though the Act provides for the establishment of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) to be the focal point for all issues relating to the disabled, with provisions to ensure that persons with disabilities are educated, employed and participate fully in sporting recreational and cultural activities, the rights of disabled women are still being violated.
Ms. Muto calls on the government to put disability on the national agenda in earnest. “Those who agitate for human rights should also include the rights of women with disabilities. We cannot access public toilets, pubic transport and even delivery tables, so where are our rights?”
Rosemary's article is part of our focus on disability issues. - Ed.
About the Author
Rosemary Okello-Orlale is the Executive Director of African Woman and Child Feature Service (AWC) in Kenya, a media NGO focused on communication development in Africa. She is also a trustee of the Media Council of Kenya, Secretary to the Kenya Editor’s Guild and a Treasurer for the African Editor’s Forum. She holds post-graduate diplomas in research methodology from the Population Studies and Research Institute at Nairobi University and in Journalism from the London School of Journalism. Rosemary was awarded Best Female Reporter on ICT in 2004 from the African Information Society Initiative.