Amongst the range of rights violations that women and children with disabilities have to endure, abuse ranks as the vilest. Their physical and emotional abuse and neglect, alongside sexual exploitation, including rape, should be of prime concern for all South Africans.
It is a grim reality that should be brought into the open and acted upon and be noted especially during this Disability Rights Awareness Month and during 16 Days
Targets for sexual abuse
According to Therina Wentzel, national director of the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), children with disabilities are three times more likely than children without disabilities to be physically abused and sexually molested. Through their exposure to different people in the community, coupled with inadequate supervision, children with disabilities can become targets for sexual abuse. In most cases, the perpetrator is known to the child. Wentzel notes that in many cases, the child is defenceless because of the disability being an enabling factor. “The child could be incapable of verbally objecting, alerting people, or creating the necessary movements to protect him or herself. In some cases, the child can be unaware of what is happening, and the sexual abuse extends over a period of time,”
When the child does report the abuse, there are further complications that often prevents the perpetrator from being brought to justice. According to Wentzel, the child might firstly not be believed by the parents. When the child is trusted, the abuse might be swept under the carpet and not talked about.
Wentzel notes another major factor preventing perpetrators from being apprehended and charged for crimes as serious as sexual abuse, including rape. “The South African Police Service and the prosecuting authority are often reluctant to pursue the alleged perpetrator, because they are under the impression that the child – based on their disability – would not be a reliable or credible witness in court,” she states. “Such behaviour by our protection services is nothing less than prejudice and discrimination. Based on this, one cannot help but think that a child with a disability is perceived as being of lesser value than a child without.”
The importance of intermediaries
There is a final stumbling block for these abused children. When the abuse is finally reported to the authorities, a disability such as speech impediment, deafness or an intellectual disability, can lead to police not pursuing the case. Wentzel believes this is because of the highly prejudiced belief that the child cannot be understood when making a statement or properly testify in court. “Under no circumstances may a child be denied their right to access justice. There are processes that must be embarked upon to facilitate the child’s testimony, regardless of the nature and degree of disability,” he stresses.
In cases such as these, the NCPD notes the importance of involving trained intermediaries such as speech therapists. Through the use of soundboards or other alternative communication methods, the intermediaries can help relay the child’s testimony.
The NCPD has been instrumental in advocating on behalf of these children where authorities are failing them by not pursuing charges against the alleged offenders. One successful intervention came in the case of the rape of a girl child with cerebral palsy in the Northern Cape. While the child’s foster mother could understand her, the case was dismissed since the girl, due to her speech impediments, was seen as not credible. The NCPD lobbied the highest authorities in the country in order to get the case reopened, with the found guilty thanks to the help of a speech therapist communicating the testimony of the child to the court. This would not have happened if it was not for the NCPD’s persistent lobbying over several years in this case. Taking into account the seriousness of a criminal offence such as rape, the neglect of the authorities is simply unacceptable.
Disability GBV Community Peer Educators-The Importance of GBV Education in the Disability Community
As part of our initiatives to end GBV on women and girls with disabilities, we developed educational material to train women with disabilities to become ‘Disability GBV Community Peer Educators. These women are women with disabilities themselves who are sharing knowledge about GBV from a Disability perspective with other women
and girls with disabilities. The women have held over 50 educational sessions since April 2022 in their communities. Hundreds of women and girls with disabilities continue to benefit from this initiative which has proved to be very effective as it continues to unearth unreported cases of GBV within the disability community. It is also empowering women with disabilities to identify GBV and report it. Because this kind of support has not been available in South Africa, we are witnessing a rise in the need for psychosocial counselling services for those who have been affected as well as a need for permanent Disability GBV support services in these communities.
Access to justice is still a dream for disabled survivors of GBV
Sexual Offenses reported increased by 13,7% in South Africa from the same time last year. We can be almost certain that these are cases reported by women without disabilities. Women with disabilities continue to face a myriad of barriers to accessing justice.
Disability Equality Training (DET) –The importance of DET for CJS officials and GBV
Our awareness intervention continues to unearth cases of abuse however; access to justice remains a huge barrier that gender-based violence survivors with disabilities continue to face. This barrier discourages them from reporting crimes to the police. To overcome this barrier, we have another intervention targeting Criminal Justice System
Partners and GBV Services Providers. This intervention involves Disability Equality Training for SAPS members, Shelter Staff, Court Preparation Officers (CPOs), and Victim Assistance Officers (VAOs), including Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) dealing with a diverse range of issues in communities. Since April, we have trained over 300
representatives of the CJS system and GBV Service providers. DET training capacitates CJS Officials and GBV Service providers to offer services which cater for and include persons with disabilities. We are doing this on a shoestring budget and we welcome support from well-wishers.
For far too long violence against women and girls with disabilities has been surrounded by silence in South Africa. This ends now! It is time to act to end violence against women and girls with disabilities. Do your part. Act now by changing negative attitudes towards persons with disabilities, raising awareness or donating to any of our projects.
Donations: Therina Wentzel | email@example.com| 083 255 6854