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Gender-based violence: Is the plight of mentally and physically disabled women sidelined?

Simamkele Dlakavu is a human rights television producer and runs a social enterprise aimed at developing rural and township youth in South Africa. She was included in the Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young South African's list of 2014.

Today we kick off the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign. This is a global initiative that aims to shed awareness on children and gender-based violence; to create links and a solidarity network for organisations working around this issue and to lobby and pressure governments on implementing policies that aim to end gender violence. While this campaign is only for 16 days, in South Africa and in many other regions of the world there are varying discourses and initiatives around gender-based violence, especially as experienced by women. Even though in South Africa we have a ministry for women, children and people with disabilities, it is worth questioning the extent to which women with disabilities are excluded especially with regard to gender-based violence.

As a politics student as well as a champion for women empowerment, one is often exposed to feminist theories, along with information around the structural disempowerment of women from the household through to local and world decision-making institutions. However it becomes evident that the socio-cultural settings, the physical infrastructure and the institutional political sphere are for the most part still oblivious to challenges faced by women with disabilities. The physical and mental needs of women with disabilities are still not championed enough within both local and international feminist discourse. This has led to the criticism that there should be a ministry strictly for disabled people in South Africa, as the group has distinct and critical needs, instead of being included in the ministry of Women, Children and People with Disabilities.

Last night, Sunday Live, a current affairs show on SABC 1, dedicated their show on focusing on the struggles faced by women with disabilities. The guest was Miranda Lephoko, who works with the National Council for Persons with Physical Disabilities. Lephoko was shot by her husband three times which resulted in her physical disability and inability to walk. Her husband also shot himself and died instantly. There are many stories such as Lephoko’s and other women who have gained a disability through patriarchal (male) violence. Furthermore there are women who unlike Lephoko, who were born disabled and are physically, mentally and financially abused. These are the women whose stories and struggles are not shared and deliberated on enough in public discourse. They are the women whom Nomboniso Gasa calls “erased women”: the women who do not make the national headlines and thus remain excluded in national discourse. I got an opportunity to converse with Lephako at the SABC where she shared with me that in “discussions that take place [on women empowerment and gender-based violence], women with disabilities are excluded”.

She further stated that “we also have extra challenges that need to be dealt with”. The director of Ikhaya Loxolo (which means “home of peace” in isiXhosa) Alex Gunther affirms this. Ikhaya Loxolo is a facility offering mental health care and shelter to mentally challenged people in the Hobeni in Eastern Cape. In the article ‘Mentally Disabled Women Endure Intense Abuse in South Africa’, Gunther is quoted by Darren Taylor as saying that women who struggle with disabilities, physical and mental health are the ones who “have the most terrible stories to tell” especially women who live in rural and township areas.

It is often stated that black women face a “triple oppression”, for their race, gender and class, because it is a known fact especially here in Africa that poverty has the face of a black woman. However, imagine the struggles that mentally and physically disabled black women in rural and township areas face.

Here are some of the stories that Taylor shared about the cases in the rural area of Hobeni in Eastern Cape:

“At a point last year we had 10 residents – nine of them female and nine of them coming from having being raped or molested previously. In this area the mentally disabled girls, they are being taken advantage of like in no other place…. It’s hurting. It’s hurting us….” – Gunther.

“It’s very hard to prosecute these kinds of crimes, involving people who aren’t alright mentally, especially when there are no witnesses,” said Gunther. She added, ‘But even when there are witnesses we find a great reluctance among law enforcement people to follow up on cases where a mentally disabled person has been attacked. It is as if they don’t have the same rights to justice as other people, simply because they are disabled and considered not fully human.’”

Furthermore. Taylor states that mothers who are not able to give their daughters 24-hour care and who struggle to provide food for their families, let alone security, send their daughters to the facility because “‘sooner or later my girl will be raped and I don’t want that”. Abuse of mentally and physically challenged people is often unreported, and when it is, it results in limited convictions because the girls/women are at times unable to identify their attackers or the community does not believe them because of the attitudes that if mentally disabled girl states she’s abused she is probably “confused”.

Lephoko states that at least in the city women like her are exposed to organisations and forums where she gets to engage with other women with disabilities. However, women from rural areas and peri-urban areas with disabilities do not have the same platforms, and they “feel left out”.

While we aim to share awareness of the plight of women and children, I hope that the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign, as well as the media, highlight the silence on the struggles that women with physical and mental challenges face, especially within the context of gender-based violence. DM


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