By Anne Nattembo
As we join the rest of the world in commemorating the World Population Day on July 11 under the theme, “Prioritising Community Transformation; Addressing needs of Vulnerable Populations”; there is need to extend sexual reproductive health information and services to young people with disabilities.
Youth constitute the majority of Uganda’s population, and yet they are the least empowered group in society. Whereas there are a number of players advocating for the rights of children and young people living with HIV/AIDS, there are few people prioritizing young people with disabilities.
There is a significant relationship between disability and the HIV. Specific concerns that revolve around disability and sexuality boil down to poverty and illiteracy. Inaccessibility and inequality in education, employment and health are common grounds for people with disabilities (PWDs). PWDs often experience stigma and marginalization in many service areas, e.g. access to education, HIV/AIDS services, among others.
Women with disabilities (WWDs) are often victims of sexual and gender violence, sexual harassment thus predisposing them to HIV infection. Available HIV/AIDS services and policies however, do not provide for special emphasis on disability friendly services especially for Women with Disabilities (WWD) but are rather lumped under the vulnerable populations. Even the National Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS gives little attention to disability issues.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities identifies persons with disabilities as those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment that often hinder their equal full and effective participation in society with others. It is important to note that young people with disabilities (YWD) have the same needs and specifically sexual reproductive health (SRH) needs as other young people without disabilities. However, all too often, they are segregated against during service delivery and considered opportunities and objects to attract donations from charity. As a result, YWDs are not adequately empowered to develop their capacities to the fullest including managing their sexuality.
YWDs experience limited access to SRH knowledge and services making them vulnerable to SRH risks including HIV/AIDS because they receive little or no formal or informal education. This is coupled with disability-related prejudice, stigma and discrimination.
Young girls with disabilities face more challenges related to gender disparities and discrimination exposing them to gender based violence; which include rape and defilement. YWDs face barriers arising from societal ignorance and negative attitudes.YWDs often face higher risks of sexual abuse, dropping out of school because of a non-supportive environment in school, very high rates of child marriage exposing them to sexually transmitted infections.
Forced early marriage of girls with disabilities places them at risk as they often are unable to negotiate safe sex or the use of contraceptives which exposes them to domestic violence and teenage pregnancy. Whereas it is misconceived that YWDs are not sexually active and therefore do not need SRH information and services; it is true that PWDs may have greater SRH needs compared to other people because of their vulnerability to abuse in society.
In its programming STF delivery of services to address the plight of YWDs and special needs has been incorporated into program interventions to enhance knowledge on STIs and HIV/AIDS and reduction of unwanted pregnancy. Additionally, STF has made efforts to increase utilization of sexual reproductive health services for YWDs among this audience.
Key activities to support these initiatives include quarterly production of Straight Talk and Young Talk Braille, face-to-face interventions targeting schools, communities and organizations; with SRH and HIV/AIDS related content and creating platforms for YWDs share their thoughts and opinions through discussions discussion from issues known to them to those that are unknown.
Parents and teachers should be targeted as a secondary audience because their roles are crucial in shaping children’s behaviors.STF interventions among parents and teachers empower them with skills and knowledge to address SRH for YWDs including information to help them form positive attitudes towards YWDs. It is anticipated that such interventions support parents in creating safe and supportive environments at home and school environment for YWDs with their siblings/peers.
As a recommendation, extending services and information to young people with disabilities needs to be prioritized as a national agenda to be able to empower them to live healthy and productive lives like their fellow peers without disabilities.
In the future Straight Talk Foundation efforts will be intensified by increasing the frequency of braille as well as further integrating programming for YWDs in other sectors such as livelihoods and environment. Further still partnerships will be crucial in extending services to YWDs especially in hard to reach areas.
The writer is the Advocacy Officer of the Straight Talk Foundation
Address sexual reproductive health needs of young PWDs