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Five things you didn’t know about disability and sexual violence

4. Young women with disabilities are denied the right to make decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.

Young people with disabilities have the same sexual and reproductive health needs and rights as their peers without disabilities. Yet, too often, stigma and misconceptions about disability – along with a lack of accessible health services, limited personal autonomy, and little to no sexuality education – prevent young women with disabilities from leading healthy sexual lives.

These young women are not seen as needing information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights – or as being capable of making their own decisions. As a result, girls with disabilities have even less knowledge about sexual and reproductive rights than their male peers. Low levels of sexual education, including education about HIV transmission and prevention, often translate to risky sexual behaviours. Studies have shown that adolescents with disabilities report engaging in casual and transactional sex and not using contraceptives. Young people with disabilities have the same or higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as their peers without disabilities, but testing for HIV is lower among them.

Young women with disabilities are routinely denied access to family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services. In one study in Ethiopia, only 35 per cent of young people with disabilities used contraceptives during their first sexual encounter, and 63 per cent had had an unplanned pregnancy. A study in India indicated that 22 per cent of young women with disabilities regularly received gynaecological check-ups.

For young women living in institutions, especially, the right to make decisions about their bodies is routinely violated. These women are the most likely to experience forced abortions, forced sterilizations, STIs and sexual violence.

5. Myths and stigma contribute to the vulnerability of young people with disabilities.

Attitudes and beliefs about disability differ within communities and families, but in many cases are affected by socio-cultural norms, including myths that lead to increased violence. A 2011 study by the African Child Policy Forum in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia revealed persistent beliefs that childhood disability was caused by the mother’s sin or promiscuity, an ancestral curse or demonic possession. In some instances, the stigma associated with these beliefs caused families to hide their children with disabilities or to exclude them from school and their communities.

One of the most significant myths for young people with disabilities is the belief that people who have an STI can cure the infection by having sexual intercourse with a virgin. Young women with disabilities are at particular risk of rape by infected individuals because they are often incorrectly believed to be asexual – and thus virgins.

Perpetrators may also target them for their limited physical mobility or other vulnerabilities. In interviews conducted for the 2004 Global Survey on HIV/AIDS and Disability, disability advocates and service providers reported virgin rapes of people with disabilities in 14 of 21 countries reviewed.

‘Nothing about us without us’

Violence against children and young adults is a global epidemic. Data on violence against children are difficult to come by, largely because such violence often goes unreported and because data collection is uneven, of differing reliability across countries and dependent on varied definitions of violence.

UNFPA, the lead UN agency addressing gender-based violence in emergencies, collects and analyses data to contribute to the strengthening of national laws and policies that foster social inclusion and gender equality.

UNFPA’s global study on ending gender-based violence and realising sexual and reproductive health and rights for young people with disabilities, supported by the Government of Spain, seeks to end the invisibility of these young people, especially women and girls, by involving them in discussions of the issues as well as the solutions.

“This is what is foundational to [young people’s] ability to unlock their potential and determine their own future,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “This is how we ensure that no one is left behind.”

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