Women with disabilities: Are they nobody's children?

Swapna Majumdar, CNS Correspondent, India
Maria Cresta Anore at APCRSHR
Maria Cresta Anore cannot hear or speak. But her expressive eyes and animated fingers articulate her enthusiasm. Being at the 9th Asia Pacific Conference for Reproductive and Sexual health and Rights (APCRSHR) in Vietnam is a dream come true for her. It is not just the opportunity to engage with health and gender activists from the region that excites her. As a peer facilitator, Anore is keen to learn more about how to advocate for justice in sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially for women with disabilities back home in Philippines.

Anore and three other women with hearing and visual impairments have been invited by UNFPA to this conference, which is focussed this time on discussing and sharing ways to realise the promise of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) to ‘leave no one behind’.

While women with disabilities experience more physical and sexual abuse than women without disabilities, the situation is worse for those with hearing impairments. In Philippines, one out of every three hearing disabled women is a survivor of rape and sexual harassment, and every two out of three hearing impaired children are sexually abused, according to a 2012 study by the country’s Deaf Resource Centre.

One of the primary reasons for this is tardy implementation of various legal frameworks, like the Magna Carta for Women, the Magna Carta for Persons with Disability, and the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act ( RPRH), legislated to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women with disabilities and safeguard them from violence.

In fact, under the RPRH law, universal access to family planning, including contraception, education and maternal care is mandatory. However, limited capacity of healthcare providers to provide inclusive services, coupled with a lack of awareness of their SRH rights has led women with disabilities to fall through the cracks.

“I became pregnant before marriage, although I was using the natural way of contraception. If I had to use other contraception methods I would need a sign language interpreter to accompany me to the pharmacy/clinic, otherwise it would be difficult to communicate. The service providers would not understand and even if they did, they might pass moral judgements on my behaviour. So it is very difficult for us to access these services”, said Anore.

The 31 year old pointed out that she got married, even though she and her partner were not ready to become parents then. “I and my husband are happy. But many of my friends who do not want to get married or have children have to seek other means which can be risky,” she said.

But this is set to change soon. An innovative programme launched by the National Commission for Human Rights in Philippines in collaboration with UNFPA is training women with disabilities as peer facilitators to improve their knowledge and access to SRH services . These facilitators in turn, have identified and trained six peer educators each, thus expanding the knowledge pool and leading to an informed demand for quality sexual and reproductive health services for women with disabilities.

Photo credit: Swapna Majumdar
“This project is ongoing and we are hopeful that we will be able to facilitate the process of empowerment”, said JulieDe Guzman of the Commission for Human Rights. The women are also accompanied by experienced sign language interpreters like Jai Villarreal who has been a sign interpreter for over 17 years. Jai and Joy Lardizabal, an interpreter with 19 years of experience, do not impose their views or opinions while translating the discussions. “Our job is to translate exactly what is being said. So even if we might have our own opinions on what is being said, we do not express it”, said Villarreal.

Leonara Tiongca too is a part of the four member peer facilitator team from Philipinnes who has been invited by UNFPA to APCRSHR. Tiongca who is visually impaired, is looking forward to attending the session on ensuring social justice for people with disabilities. As Vice President and founder of the National Organisation for the Visually Impaired Empowered Ladies (NOVEL), the only non profit organisation for the blind in Motera, Manila, she wants to use her experience at APCRSHR to underline that it was high time society and governments recognised that women with disabilities were not asexual and they too needed SRH services.

Janine Crezet echoes similar sentiments. Crezet is also a member of NOVEL and says that attending the conference has helped to increase her knowledge around sexual and reproductive health. “Increasing awareness of our rights in relation to sexual and reproductive health and disability will increase our confidence to access and negotiate health services. I have realised that women with disabilities face similar problems, no matter where they live in this region.We all have to demand our rights”, said Crezet.

So when these women leaders return to Philipinnes, they would push for collective action to further their demand for sexual and reproductive health services and facilitate peer support amongst groups of women with disabilities to ensure that they are not left behind.

Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service (CNS)
29 November 2017 

(Swapna Majumdar is a senior journalist based in Delhi and part of CNS Correspondents Team. Follow her on twitter @Majumdar_swapna)