For all adolescents the issues of puberty, intimacy, relationships, love, sex, reproductive health including contraception are complicated. For young persons with disabilities, navigating this terrain is much tougher.
Betty, 26, from Uganda, for instance. While she is physically challenged, she still has sexual and reproductive health needs. The same is true for most young people who suffer from various disabilities.
As a young woman with physical challenges, Betty says she feels unsupported and unempowered to fulfil her sexual and reproductive health and rights.
“Young people with disabilities, especially women, face triple challenges,” she says. “You are marginalized by society and they look at your disability negatively. So if you are disabled and you are raped, you are neglected. Then society blames you for falling pregnant. No one wants to be identified with the disabled pregnant girl.”
Her experience is echoed by Kelvin, 24, a young man from Zimbabwe who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta (commonly known as brittle bone disease) and is also living with HIV.
He says: “We are marginalized in the community. Individuals believe that people with disabilities don’t have sexual desires and, worse still, we don’t have access to information or services.”
A global challenge
Worldwide, between 180 and 220 million young people aged 10 to 24 years old live with mental, intellectual, physical or sensorial disabilities. In addition, 20 million women become disabled each year as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, such as obstetric fistula.
About 80 per cent of all persons with disabilities live in developing countries, with 15 per cent of Africans estimated to have moderate to severe disabilities. Young persons with disabilities are three times more likely than non-disabled people to suffer physical, sexual and emotional violence.
Their situation is exacerbated by laws, policies and attitudes that fall short of protecting their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Young persons with disabilities clearly represent a segment of society that is left behind. In many instances, they are a group left furthest behind when it comes to access to basic services.
A collective action
The responsibility for young people, including those with disabilities, and their sexual and reproductive health and rights needs is a multi-sectoral consideration that involves health, education, youth and social welfare ministries in government in addition to civil society, the private sector, faith-based organizations and academia.
Enabling young persons with disabilities to realize their sexual and reproductive health and rights – including their ability to prevent sexual abuse, early and unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections will, in turn, help to ensure that other rights are realized, such as their right to education, economic opportunities, financial independence, and social empowerment. This is a message that is highlighted in the State of World Population 2017 report, ‘Worlds Apart: Reproductive health and rights in an age of inequality’. The report outlines 10 actions for a more equal world, including universal social protection, which requires everyone to have access to basic income security including maternity, disability, child and similar benefits that are essential to well-being.
Due to the gap in fulfilling the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young persons with disability in the East and Southern Africa region, UNFPA in partnership with UK AID, Regional Economic Communities such as SADC and EAC, governments, civil society and with the active participation of young persons with disabilities, has developed an evidence-informed regional strategic guidance that will expand access to, and demand for, sexual and reproductive health information and services. Millions of young persons with disabilities potentially stand to benefit.
The many hurdles around designing and implementing new technology-based solutions is also being included in much of the thinking at UNFPA. Many of the new IT and innovation hubs in the wake of the ongoing digital revolution are focused on designing market solutions that tend to leave out minorities and marginalized groups. Therefore, supporting young entrepreneurs in developing innovative solutions to key sexual and reproductive health and rights challenges has taken on board the challenge they face to access. UNFPA, through the innovation accelerator initiative (iAccelerator), is looking at innovative ways of working with 15 start-ups in four countries in East and Southern Africa. The initiative advantages young entrepreneurs from marginalized populations, which includes young persons with disabilities, and also gives priority to solutions to challenges faced by marginalized groups, including YPD.
Developing initiatives, together with governments, that will unlock the power of private partnerships and ultimately ensure healthier lives for young persons with disabilities is a key part of our commitment.
Never again to live with indignity
The vision of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’. If this vision is to be achieved, we need to do more to focus on the rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, of young persons with disabilities.
As UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem says: “All young people should have access to comprehensive sexuality education and to the services they need to protect their health, well-being and dignity. Young persons with disabilities should never have to endure the trauma of physical, psychological or sexual violence, ever.”
It is the responsibility of all to ensure that those who are living with disabilities are able to live with dignity and be empowered to enjoy their rights, including those rights that deal with sex, sexuality and reproduction.