There are currently many initiatives dominating social media platforms which deal with the challenge facing girls in impoverished communities who remain out of school due to a lack of adequate feminine protection products. This has long been a need and is something that the authorities should have addressed even before the distribution of free condoms, but the purpose of this article is not to take the powers that be to task on their priorities!
Rather, I want to highlight girls with disabilities. Many of them come from these same communities and face the same challenges, particularly the high cost of products used in the management of personal reproductive health. However, the fact of their disability raises another set of challenges not faced by their non-disabled peers. I’ve written before about the lack of access to reproductive information and healthcare for women with disabilities, and that ties in somewhat with this article.
Young girls with disabilities face tremendous stigma amongst healthcare professionals because of their disability. There also exists the perception that girls with disabilities do not need information on reproductive health as it is presumed they would not engage in sexual activities as a direct result of their disability. Consequently, these young girls are denied access to appropriate information. Sexual activity is relevant for all young girls. Their bodies are maturing and along with that comes healthcare needs; where to obtain feminine protection products, how often and how to use them, what to do if there is a problem in using the products. This is information that has been passed on from mothers (in most cases) to daughters since ancient times. Why would girls with disabilities not be afforded the same right to information?
Assuming sexual activity is relevant (and why shouldn’t it be?), girls with disabilities do not have access to family planning and contraception advice. Girls with disabilities also have a higher chance of being subjected to gender-based violence and crime, and should be aware of their right to access victim empowerment programmes.
The cost of feminine protection products is a barrier that is common amongst all girls in the low-income bracket, but for girls with disabilities who may have the additional costs of medication, assistive devices, incontinence wear and others, it is particularly prohibitive. The physical access to a store from which these products can be purchase may also be inaccessible, there may be communication barriers that exist between the girl and the shop assistants, or simply family members who support girls with disabilities who have bought into the thinking that these girls are somehow “lesser” women and money should not be wasted on such things.
Added to the issue of accessibility comes the access to hygienic facilities which are important in the prevention of infections. Statistics South Africa’s 2011 Census revealed that “less than half (42%) of households headed by persons with disabilities had access to a flush toilet facility (below the national average of 60,1%) and more than a third (37,1%) used pit toilets (both with and without ventilation), compared with 58,5% and 26,9% respectively for those headed by persons without disabilities. Of concern is also the proportion of households headed by persons with disabilities that had no toilet facilities (6,9%)”
These statistics are disturbing, to say the least.
Luckily, the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has much to say on the topic! Policy Directive 4.4.2 states that “All persons with disabilities, and in particular women and girls with disabilities as well as older persons with disabilities, who are victims and/or survivors of disability-related and gender-based violence and crime, must have access to affordable victim empowerment and recourse programmes.” In addition, Policy Directive 4.4.3 states that all HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment programmes “must include family planning, sexuality/sex education programmes.”
This is wonderful and disability activists and organisations for and of persons with disabilities will most definitely ensure that this is accomplished! However, there is an immense lack of information surrounding the true situation facing girls and women with disabilities, and only once that information has been obtained, can we hope to address these needs comprehensively.