16 June 2017

[BLOG] Special Youth Series: Sex, Disability & the Right to Equality

By Mark Gachagua


Not much is known about how to improve reproductive health care for women living with intellectual disabilities. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities explains intellectual disability as characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior—including many everyday social and practical skills. It’s traditionally defined as those which originated organically during the developmental period but it is possible for people to acquire it as a result of brain injuries from physical or chemical impact later on in life.


Women living with intellectual disabilities are often victims of  several misconceptions:

  • being asexual;
  • incapable of being in a sexual relationship; and
  • incompetent in terms of bearing and raising children.

Because of these common false assumptions, access to information and variety of reproductive health services are extremely limited.


As result, women with disabilities might not be taken into consideration during the design and implementation of sexual and reproductive health information, outreach and intervention.


The fact is, women living with intellectual disabilities are as likely to be as sexually active and have the same sexual risk factors as those without disabilities.


Many women living with intellectual disabilities lack both formal and informal opportunities to learn about sexuality, let alone receive an education about their sexual health and rights. Other sources—such as television—become the ultimate source of information, often doing more harm than good due to the mischaracterization depicted in most media about sexual and romantic relationships.


This includes a lack of practical knowledge about how to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infections or an unplanned pregnancy; which renders them more vulnerable to diseases, sexual violence and abuse.


Conversations about the sexual and reproductive health of women living with intellectual disabilities are minimal, if any. They also face double discrimination due to the limited status of women and the stigma and ignorance around disability. They are often left to navigate a hostile world, rife with prejudice.


In some societies, stigma has led to them to be “hidden” from society by their families—both for protection and to conceal shame.


Some families may not want to be involved, nor put effort in providing proper care for a family member living with intellectual disabilities because she may be seen as a futile “project”—a dehumanizing presumption that must be eradicated.


Many women living with intellectual disabilities have been subjected to eugenic involuntary sterilization—a human rights violation that earns no justification and warrants no excuse—often under duress, or without giving any form of consent at all.


Both forced sterilization and forced abortion are often administered to women living with disabilities, deemed incapable of experiencing the full range of emotional and physical reactions associated with their sexual and reproductive life—including sensations of pain and pleasure. Justifications for this include paternalistic desires to prevent pregnancy and manage menstruation; but are often presented without consideration to the victim’s autonomy.


The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires State signatories to provide people living with disabilities the same range, quality, and standard of health care and programs provided to any other people—including in the area of sexual and reproductive health.


Unfortunately, this type of abuse takes place behind closed doors, making vulnerable women living with disabilities more likely to fall victim without recourse, protection or justice.


The rights of women and girls living with disabilities must be placed at the forefront of all advocacy and engagement around sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The entire concept of International Development is stitched into the fabric of collective action for the underserved, underrepresented, and undervalued. It is vital that those who seek to validate the experiences and lives of others in the SRHR space actively represent the interests of those most vulnerable to exploitation and harm.


Click here to read the unabridged version of this article.

About the author

Mark Gachagua | Kenya

As Founder of Young People Advocating for Health (YAH), Mark Gachagua is a Kenyan youth advocate who has advocated sexual and reproductive health and rights for six years. Mark has worked with more than sixty policy makers through advocacy campaigns, and was instrumental in the launch of the global “All in Campaign” which aims to scale up the fight against HIV/AIDS among adolescents. Mark is a Women Deliver Young Leader and is currently working with young people, institutions, and the media to create a movement of young people who are aware of their sexual and reproductive health rights.

As we seek to create global youth engagement in all international development spaces, Every Woman Every Child is partnering with Wellbeing for Women Africa,  encouraging young writers to discuss discuss key issues affecting women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health and wellbeing.