New Internationalist

Body blows

Issue 384

In the thick of Zimbabwe’s current turmoil, women with disabilities face hellish prejudice, hunger and rape. Gladys Charowa bears witness.

Photo: Howard Davies / Exile Images
All together now: Bhutanese refugee children, some with disabilities, at a disablity support camp in Nepal. Photo: Howard Davies / Exile Images

‘The people that l looked up to let me down. Being a student I always had respect for them and counted on them as my family. I told them all my problems and worries. At the age of seven I never thought that I would be taken as a wife by a man of his age, 30 or so. He led me into the act even though I refused. I was scared and feared for my life. He took advantage that I am defenceless. I could not report the matter to anyone, as I did not know whom to trust any more because the school matron had let him rape me. I was depressed and confused though I was not alone. There were ten of us that the same teacher had abused.

‘We finally reported the case and it was taken to the courts. But as if that was not enough another schoolteacher raped four of us from the same group again, just as we returned from testifying in court. There seems to be no protection for children. In court we testified facing the teacher.’ Vongai, who is now eight years old and uses a wheelchair after contracting polio, is a primary school pupil in a now notorious school in Macheke. The whole court where she and the other students testified is a male domain, including the panel of judges. Some of the accomplices, especially the matron who is alleged to have facilitated the rape of the children by summoning the rapists and guarding the doors as the crimes took place, are still walking scot-free. The children have also heard allegations that high-powered male officials in the province are committing rape at will and have not been arrested.

Sadly Vongai’s story is not as exceptional as one might like to think. In Zimbabwe disability is a curse because society has made it so, and disabled women and girls are hit particularly hard. People believe disability is caused by evil. Some communities believe that it is a result of prostitution, divine punishment and witchcraft. People with disabilities are viewed as useless, a burden and a liability. They are automatically abandoned and refused a role in society.

Women with disabilities are singled out for particular abuse. In our society, men receive all the honour for success and women all the blame for failure. If a woman gives birth to a disabled child, she is blamed and left to fend for that child on her own. If a woman becomes disabled at a later stage in life she is abandoned by her husband for an able-bodied wife. However when the reverse happens, women will stay in the family to take care of their disabled husbands.

Women with disabilities are singled out for particular abuse. In our society, men receive all the honour for success and women all the blame for failure

Even the supposedly enlightened discriminate, regardless of whether they are women themselves. When I telephoned a female Executive Director of an influential and well respected women’s organization to request an appointment, I got the following reply: ‘We do not network with people with disabilities. What will the world say if I am seen having a meeting with you? You have to stay indoors and ask the Department of Social Welfare to assist you with food.’

Spiralling crisis

Photo: DWSO
Carted around: without wheelchairs outings become a rarity for these women. Photo: DWSO

Her advice seemed unreal in a country where disabled people can hardly afford one decent meal a day due to abject poverty. In Southern Africa the situation has been exacerbated by the recurrent droughts of the past five years. Disabled people in Zimbabwe often cannot afford devices such as wheelchairs, hearing aids, walking sticks, crutches, etc. Some use wheelbarrows, scotch carts (ox-drawn carts) and wooden homemade carriers commonly called muchanja (Shona for ‘mobility’). I underwent a rehabilitation programme along with 18 others in 2001, the year I became disabled. I am now the only person alive. The rest have died because of pressure sores. If someone can’t afford a wheelchair and is using a wheelbarrow and doesn’t have a cushion, what do you expect?

Inflation continues to rise despite the Government’s efforts to arrest it with price controls and price freezes. This, obviously, has serious disability and gender implications. In rural Zimbabwe a lot of households are female headed as the husbands are employed in urban areas or have died due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This means the mothers have to fight a lone battle in fending for the family. They have to scramble and scrounge for food, which is in short supply in the shops.

In the cities many are living exposed to the elements as they do not have permanent homes. Homelessness has worsened with the recent ‘Operation Murambatsina’ (literally ‘remove dirt’), which has destroyed several makeshift homes in most urban centres of the country. It is estimated that over one million people were left homeless, and about 20 per cent of those are people with disabilities. Being the poorest of the poor, they could only resort to such so-called ‘shacks and cabins’.

Belief in a myth that having sex with a disabled woman cures HIV is leading to numerous rapes

Veronica is an elderly widow who is chronically ill. She has three young grandchildren, one with disabilities, from her dead daughter. I met her after her home had been destroyed. She had a rosary around her neck, wore an apron with a picture of the Sacred Heart and a t-shirt with President Mugabe’s photo. She was running out of means to survive and was angry at Mugabe. ‘Where will I go now and how can I take care of this disabled child after losing my home? I used to treat our President like my father, now look what the father has done to me.’

The Roman Catholic Church assists some people with disabilities, and those living with HIV/AIDS. A Sister of the Dominican Order in the capital Harare made these comments: ‘How can the little ones of this world be brutalized in this way? Their only crime is that they are poor, they are disabled, they are helpless and they happen to live in the wrong part of town and in a country that does not have oil and is not very important to the West.’ One man told me that he had phoned the Red Cross asking for help but was informed: ‘It is not a war situation so there is nothing we can do.’

Most houses in Africa are not adapted for wheelchair users, who, according to our research, often use their beds as toilets and bathrooms as they cannot manœuvre into these small rooms. Even public buildings lack proper access.

Some traditions and customs in Zimbabwean culture expose children, particularly girls, to abuse. Practices like kuzvarira – which involves swapping the girl child for food to save a starving family – condemns her to perpetual suffering. She is forced to marry early and is denied a chance to prepare for her future, for instance by attending school. The marriage is often to a very old husband and it is mostly polygamous, making life hell on earth for the young girl.

Prostitution has become another fallback for many who fail to make ends meet. Hunger knows no dignity and induces reckless behaviour. Forced marriages and prostitution put women and girls, including those with disabilities, in danger of contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). This explains why Zimbabwe is amongst the countries with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence ratio on the continent.

Cast out

Those who do not find themselves in this predicament may still suffer in different ways. Some are forced to drop out of school as resources run dry in the family. Child labour is rampant in the country and is rising due to food shortages and the recent homelessness crisis, which was created by the Government. People with mobility impediments and blind people are now being forced to die, as they have been removed from the streets where they used to beg.

It is very painful to note that most women discriminate against women with disabilities. Aunts and mothers-in-law are often at the forefront in blaming a woman who is living with disability or who has given birth to a child with disabilities. They encourage their brothers and sons to divorce.

Photo: DWSO
Single mum and rights campaigner: Gladys Charowa with her young son. Photo: DWSO

Tatenda, aged 48 years, told us her story. ‘I was born in Buhera and had married a man from Mhondoro. My third kid started having problems when he was six years old. I came with him to Harare Hospital and he was diagnosed with meningitis.’ The child developed multiple disabilities and had to come for physiotherapy on a weekly basis. ‘Commuting from Mhondoro was difficult, so, in the end, I moved to Harare. I separated from my husband who could not come to terms with the disability of our child and was under pressure from his relatives. I lived in a cottage and my income came from selling vegetables. Now I am living in the open since my cottage was destroyed. I no longer have any source of income. I can’t go to the rural areas because my child is on medication and I also have to attend physiotherapy with him. I need a place to live and I also want to be allowed to sell vegetables again.’

People with mobility impediments and blind people are now being forced to die as they have been removed from the streets where they used to beg

Disabled women are vulnerable to HIV from men claiming to support them, often their husbands, who take advantage of their wives’ disabilities and have extra-marital affairs. Once the disabled woman is HIV-positive, the man sends her away to her parents or relatives to take care of her until death. He will refuse the responsibility of bringing HIV into the marriage. A case in point is Mary, who had this to say: ‘I am a wheelchair user from tuberculosis of the spine and I now cannot control my bowel and bladder. I have three children all below the age of 12 years. In 2000 my husband died. Suddenly after his death, I became ill and went for HIV testing and was diagnosed HIV positive. His relatives blamed me for causing his death and they chased the children and me out of the marital house. I went back to stay with my brother and his wife, who could not accept me as I am living with disability and am HIV-positive.’

Belief in a myth that having sex with a disabled woman cures HIV is leading to numerous rapes. In 2004 alone the Disabled Women Support Organisation (DWSO) lost nine of its members to HIV/AIDS after they were sexually abused. Among the most disheartening cases is that of a mother who assisted her brother to rape her young daughter so that his HIV could be cured. This girl died a year and a half later. The Girl Child Network reports that children as young as two years are being sexually abused by caregivers or close relatives who believe in this HIV/AIDS ‘cure’.

People with disability are among the least educated people in Zimbabwean society and can easily be victimized if they report abuse. Also, if lodging a complaint meant that the breadwinner were put behind bars, all the other family members would turn against the accuser.

Disabled people also find the doors of the Voluntary Testing Centres closed to them. This is because of the counselling staff’s attitude towards disability and lack of proper access to the buildings. Information on HIV/AIDS is not available in Braille or sign language.

We are fighting to be recognized as human beings. We hope that our goals will drive us out of the precarious situation we find ourselves in, and that our rights will be upheld. I have noticed that to accomplish great things we must not only act but also dream, not only plan but also believe.

Gladys Charowa is a single mother of two, living with disability since December 2001 after she damaged her spine in a car accident. She is the founder of Disabled Women Support Organisation (DWSO) which works towards physically and economically empowering women and girls with disabilities.

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