Addressing sexual health and rights of women with disabilities

Adolescent girls and young women have emerged as a priority group – especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights. Exacerbated by gender inequalities, power imbalances and gender-restrictive norms, they face stigma and discrimination increasing their vulnerability and risk to a number of sexual and reproductive health related issues such as violence and HIV infections.

In South Africa, the rates of transmission and HIV infection are higher among adolescent girls and young women when compared to their male counterparts. Among this group, there is a significantly greater vulnerability and risk for HIV infection, violence, poorer sexual health outcomes and access to sexual and reproductive health services.

For adolescent girls and young women with disabilities, this vulnerability and risks are even higher. Yet, they remain largely excluded and invisible in programmes, policies and services targeted at the sexual and reproductive health rights of adolescent girls and young women.

To address the lack of support for adolescent girls and young women with disabilities, an advocacy project took place. It was funded by Her Voice Fund and implemented by the Global Network of People living with HIV.

The aim was to amplify the voices of this priority group while also gathering evidence that could be used for advocacy towards policy change.

The project was conducted by peers (by other young women with disabilities) to gather information in a safe and supportive environment. Participants consisted of 148 adolescent girls and young women with disabilities from the Eastern Cape and Gauteng with an average age of 20,5 years.

Findings from the project highlighted that the majority of the group were unemployed (68,6 percent) and had only completed some secondary schooling (41,1 percent). Adolescent girls and young women with limited economic options and poor education have been shown to engage in risky behaviours, including risky sexual activities, while facing an increased risk of exploitation and poorer sexual health outcomes.

Of the participants, 41,7 percent scored 25 percent and below on HIV knowledge, while 56,7 percent indicated that they engage in sexual intercourse. The average age of first sexual intercourse among the group was 17,3 years.

Violence was common with 15,7 percent of participants reporting experiencing rape, 19,3 percent facing intimate-partner physical violence, and 20,7 percent indicating experiencing physical violence in the last 12 months from the start of the project. Lastly, it was found that the majority (86,4 percent) do not make use of or access services.

Incidentally, these findings are worrying, considering adolescent girls and young women with disabilities still lack access to sexual and reproductive health services and comprehensive sexuality education in South Africa.

In view of the gravity of the issue and the increased vulnerability of adolescent girls and young women with disabilities with regards to sexual and reproductive health and rights related issues, it is recommended that more evidence be gathered on the priority areas and challenges they face.

There also needs to be more focus given to developing combination interventions focused on the social, economic and demographic determinants of HIV infection and violence among this vulnerable group. Finally, more provision needs to be made towards increasing the inclusion and access of Adolescent girls and young women with disabilities to sexual and reproductive health and rights -related services, including justice-seeking and counselling services.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *