Gender-based violence: Talking about children living with disabilities
WITH almost daily reports of violence against women and children our Constitution, Article 10, stating that “All persons are equal before the law”does not seem to carry much weight when it comes to Namibian pride and peace among her citizens.
Gender-based violence is experienced by both girls and boys, women and men with disabilities, with disproportionately high incidences compared to those without disabilities. While factors that increase the risk of gender-based violence for those with disabilities include stigma, discrimination, and harmful myths in general, girls and women remain more vulnerable to violence due to their gender.
Leena* is 13 years old. She lives in Goreangab with her mother and 4 siblings. She normally attends a government special school and she would stay in the hostel with all her friends. Since March however, she has been at home with her siblings because of the lockdown.
If you look at Leena, she does not look any different than other children her age. But she has always struggled to do simple tasks like tie her shoes, do math, write, read or remember to do her chores around the house. For this she got in trouble a lot. She still does. Leena also do not understand that taking a chocolate in the shop and not paying for it is stealing. Leena does not understand what stealing is. She loves to talk a lot although her words do not make sense. She runs around and plays with her friends and rarely sits still for even short periods of time.
In the past few months so much has changed for her. Where she could run outside and play on the swings every day, Leena is now confined to four walls and five people around her for 24 hours every day, all day long. There are a lot of fights with her siblings and her mother. Leena wants to go outside and play, but she is not allowed. They say she will die if she goes outside. She is scared, cries and screams and breaks everything she can find in fear, anger and frustration. Her mother slaps her through the face to shut her up, her brothers kick her, and her sisters beat her. They have been doing it for years anyway. Now, only more. Who is going to believe her anyway?
After two weeks, her mother locks her in a small room to prevent her from leaving the house. Leena cries every day. Her stomach pains and her head hurts. They only let her out to go to the toilet every now and then and sometimes she gets leftover food. Some mornings she wakes up and she feels a strange incomprehensible relief as the tension leaves her body. Her older brother did not visit last night.
This is the story of many children with disabilities in Namibia.
Gender-Based Violence and Disability Globally and Nationally
About 15 percent of the world’s population live with some form of disability, accounting for approximately 1 billion people. Persons with disabilities are more likely to have adverse experiences related to socioeconomic outcomes than those without disabilities including poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, less education and higher poverty rates. Covid-19 has had unique impacts on the health, education, and transport in the lives of people living with disabilities.
A total of 32 299 learners in Namibia were reported to have a disability in the Education Statistics of 2017 (MoEAC). Of these 15 083 or 46,7 percent were females. Regions that reported highest were Ohangwena, Khomas, Omusati, Kavango East and Oshikoto with 57 percent of learners with disabilities recorded as living in these five regions.
Across the globe statistics on violence against children with disabilities are alarming. A review on several studies has found that overall children with disabilities are almost four times more likely to experience violence than non-disabled children. It further showed that children with disabilities are 3.7 times more likely than non-disabled children to be victims of any sort of violence, 3.6 times more likely to be victims of physical violence, and 2.9 times more likely to be victims of sexual violence. Children with mental or intellectual impairments seemed among the most vulnerable, with 4.6 times the risk of sexual violence than their peers without disabilities. It has been shown that the most vulnerable of all children are those on the autism spectrum together with those with hearing, visual, psychosocial, or intellectual disabilities. Stigma, discrimination, and ignorance about disabilities, including a lack of social support for caretakers, were among the factors contributing to the higher risk to violence. Most incidences of violence go unreported and unpunished.
It is noted that girls and young women with disabilities are recognised to be multiple disadvantaged as they experience exclusion based on their gender and their disability. They are also especially vulnerable to abuse. They may face up to 10 times more violence than those without disabilities. Factors increasing vulnerability include limited physical mobility or means of communication. Discrimination starts early in life. Many infant girls born with disabilities die through ‘mercy killings’ in comparison to male infants with disabilities. Harmful myths also increase the risk of sexual violence such as the belief in some African countries that having sex with a virgin girl or a girl with Albinism will cure one from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Invisible Gender-Based Violence
Psychological gender-based violence is often invisible and includes any act that causes emotional harm targeted at persons because of their gender. Some examples include controlling or restricting someone’s movements, threatening another person, verbally disrespecting and degrading another person through ignorance and/or denying them their basic human rights. The intersection between gender-based violence and disability is of specific concern because some forms of violence against women with disabilities have remained invisible and not been recognised as gender-based violence due to discrimination.
Educational programmes often lack the resources to develop communication skills such as sign language and protective behaviours. Young women with disabilities are perceived as asexual and excluded from family planning and sexual reproductive health education and services. This often, translates into risky sexual behaviours.
Moreover, women and girls with disabilities are often denied basic health services like medication, immunisation, and screening for chronic health conditions. They are also subjected to dismissive or discriminatory conduct by healthcare workers, lacking the skills and training to support their individual special needs. They may be treated as objects, without sensitivity, as if they do not have feelings. As if they were not human. Often, they are not asked for consent regarding interventions.
As the community often turns a blind eye on incidences of gender-based violence against women and girls with disabilities, the process of reporting gender-based violence has proven to be one of the greatest barriers. Inadequate policies and standards, physical access, available information and communication barriers (Braille, sign language interpreters for example), lack of service provision, lack of trained staff to deal with trauma and special needs populations and general ignorance towards the needs of victims are all examples of these barriers. Matsi’s (2018) gender-based violence study on women with disabilities in the Khomas region showed that very few incidences are reported. The study further found that women with disabilities’ main concern lies with obtaining services from service providers.
Healthcare workers and police frequently perceive women and girls with intellectual disabilities as not being credible in their accounts resulting in no further interventions. Inaccessible services in the health and justice systems may very well contribute to gender-based violence of women and girls with disabilities.
Lastly, our conceptualisation and behaviour as families and communities towards girls and women with disabilities determines our contribution to gender-based violence.
What You, Your Government, Civil Society and Development Partners Can Do
Following the Namibia National Gender Policy (2010 – 2020) strategies:
• “Collaborate with stakeholders to improve the delivery of health, education and social services so that women and girls living in poverty, including those with disabilities, have access to such facilities, particularly in the rural areas” (p24).
• Eradicate illiteracy: “Recognise that in order for women and men with disabilities to participate in educational programmes – especially those which are meant to address literacy and the development of business skills – educational media should be made accessible in a form that facilitates use by people with disability, such as literature in Braille or large print, or on tape for the blind, and media content which is in sign language, for the deaf” (p26).
• “Create awareness – through the media – for the community at large, families and especially medical practitioners, that people with disabilities have the right to health” (p28).
• “Ensure and encourage families to send their children, especially girls and children with disabilities, to school” (p39).
• Design inclusive and accessible services that protect women and girls with disabilities from violence including health and justice services, shelters and courts.
• Invest in educating women and girls on their sexual and reproductive rights and how to protect themselves.
• Improve data availability on different forms of violence experienced by women and girls with disabilities.
• Invest in evidence-based interventions that can validate the decrease of incidences of violence towards sustainable change in the lives of women and girls with disabilities.
• Purposefully include violence against women and girls with disabilities in developmental projects.
LifeLine/ChildLine’s Psychosocial Services to Victims and Perpetrators
Providing psychosocial services to victim and perpetrator are essential to the healing and growth of our nation. LifeLine/ChildLine Namibia is a registered Welfare Organisation and NGO whose vision is ‘safer, healthier, more resilient children, families and communities in Namibia’. The organisation operates a National Counselling Centre in Windhoek, which handles different telephone, sms, face-to-face and online counselling services for the whole of Namibia. All services are free of charge.
Operating within their scope of practice and adhering to all national laws, our counsellors are ready to listen and assist. The call centre is open from 08:00 – 23:00 daily. LifeLine/ChildLine Namibia is here for you. Please do not play on the lines, you block the lines for those who may be in immediate need of help!
EMIS. (2017). Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture. Namibia
Matsi, J. (2018).Vulnerabilities Contributing to Gender-Based Violence (Gbv) Against Women with Disabilities in the Khomas Region, Windhoek, Namibia. (Master Thesis). University of Namibia.
Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare. (n.d.). National Gender Policy2010-2020. Republic of Namibia.