Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize. Picture: ANA
Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize. Picture: ANA

Silent battle for sanity

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 8, 2020

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Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize

THIS year is a difficult one for all, especially so for women who have had to endure the double pandemic of Covid-19 and gender-based violence (GBV).

While GBV is a much older and stubborn pandemic in South Africa, both have serious mental health consequences. These pandemics have laid bare the gaps in our health systems, and South Africa’s aversion to openly discussing mental health.

Persons with disabilities live with the constant burden of mental health issues emanating from chronic marginalisation, exclusion and the deep pain of deprivation.

We have just come through Women’s Month which took place under unprecedented conditions as a result of Covid-19. This pandemic once again underlined the inequality faced by women and girls across the world.

Less spoken about, but as important is the impact Covid-19 has had on women with disabilities.

As we hosted a number of webinars, and were invited to many other engagements, it became clear to me that women with disabilities were easily ignored in many conversations.

This shadow cast over the sector was not intentional but felt. Individual organisations would apologise or went to length to explain the exclusion away. This might be forgivable for organisations arranging webinars for the first time, unaware of this oversight, however, the pattern of exclusion became increasingly worrying for me. For most people, when we say Women’s Month 2020, it is assumed that women with disabilities are included in this umbrella grouping, however, it is in this assumption that exclusion becomes easier.

A similar situation occurred when a counter-narrative to the Black Lives Matter campaign began in America.

The “All Lives Matter” movement began, but this catch-all campaign ignored the systemic racism, inequality and unequal value of life placed on African-Americans by their criminal and justice systems.

To elevate the voices of women with disabilities is not to discard others.

It is to introduce a voice to a choir that has been singing, only to enhance that choir’s delivery and reach, while ensuring all voices are heard.

In a recent webinar on August 31 hosted by the department, under the theme: “Gender equality and realising the rights of women with disabilities” with women with disabilities and organisations of and for persons with disabilities and government departments, engaged on pressing issues of gender, empowerment and GBV against women and girls with disabilities. There was a strong engagement on economic justice for women with disabilities, which I will engage on, at another time, however, the other recurring theme that came up during the almost two-hour-30-minute engagement was that of the strain gender-based violence was having on the mental health of women with disabilities.“

Research shows that disability reduces opportunities for education, work, training and employment, particularly for women in disadvantaged communities, magnifying their vulnerability to violence.

In addition, women with disabilities are not excluded from genderbased violence, sexual harassment and femicide in personal spaces, in social spaces, as well as in places of work.

Women with disabilities are often seen by society as weak, worthless and, in some cases, subhuman, and such perceptions heighten their risk of GBV. The situation is exacerbated by other factors like gender, race and class, as all these work together to create vulnerability to GBV.

Women with disabilities have also been found to be more psychologically vulnerable than non-disabled women, and they are twice as likely to be victims of sexual abuse, rape and intimate-partner violence than their non-disabled counterparts.

We heard testimony by Liza Aziz, a mother of a child with autism, who is an activist for the rights of children with disabilities and mothers of children with disabilities, where she explained the challenges faced by mothers of children with disabilities.

They are not recognised, yet most of them are primary breadwinners and caregivers for their children.

Mimi Lephoko, a survivor of gender-based violence, shared a very emotional story of how she became disabled from the waist down after being shot three times by her then husband of eight years.

Her husband subsequently shot himself thinking that she was dead.

Mimi is one of the many women who find themselves disabled as a result of gender-based violence.

The relationship between disability and violence is reciprocal.

Women and girls with disabilities are at increased risk of experiencing violence, while violence itself can lead to new or more severe disability.

Women and girls with disabilities are exposed to a wider range of potential perpetrators than their non-disabled peers. These include people on whom they may be physically, economically, or socially dependent, including intimate partners, family members, health-care providers, teachers, or personal care assistants.

Women and girls with disabilities also face increased risk of violence in a wider range of settings than women without disabilities, such as institutions or group-homes and specialised health-care settings.

Because they may often rely on a wide range of potential perpetrators, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to stay in abusive situations for longer periods of time and have fewer options for seeking safety.

They may experience difficulty recognising, defining, or describing abuse, and are often less likely than their peers without disabilities to be aware of, or able to access services due to barriers in physical and social environments.

Conversations during the webinar cycled around women with disabilities’ increased chances of experiencing abuse, while also struggling to cope with the mental strain the Covid-19 pandemic has introduced globally.

As we move beyond Women’s Month, I appeal to you to actively include the voices of women with disabilities in your spaces, so that this sector is not further marginalised in an already segregating world.

We must ensure 365 days of activism to mainstream the disability sector, but we must not forget the voices of persons with disabilities in everything that we do.

We must ensure that our work espouses the motto of the sector: Nothing about us, without us.

Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize is deputy minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities

The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media

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