Giving a voice to the disabled

2016-08-24 06:00
Benedict Leteane - Social Observer

Benedict Leteane - Social Observer

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IN most cases, gender activists, revolutionaries, humanitarians and feminists, when addressing issues of equality and the empowerment of women, have used the intersection of class, race, culture and generation to understand what could possibly shape womanhood within contemporary South Africa.

Whilst there is no doubt that those elements are critical in shaping women’s experiences and voices, there is another facet of human identity which has been historically neglected.

Here I make reference to people living with disabilities. People living with disabilities are perceived as homogeneous, static human beings (same thoughts and experiences). Throughout societal structural functions such as patriarchy, religion and cultural values, people living with disabilities have been considered shameful, helpless, voiceless and estranged beings.

This has resulted in stigmatisation, prejudicial treatment and vulnerability of these people.

As we commemorate Women’s Day and Women’s Month by assessing the country’s process of transformation in gender equity in the workplace and other spheres of life, as well as celebrating the state of being a woman in a democratic South Africa, I wonder how often this transformation dialogue includes the voices of those who have been alienated by virtue of their physical appearance.

How are these voices understood? Do the country’s legislation, policies and cultural structures advocating for gender parity provide a space for women with disabilities to raise their voice? An answer to these questions will address the most pivotal question of understanding the ways in which women living with disabilities formulate their existence.

To interrogate this question, I will use two stories of women I have had conversations with about their presence in South Africa.

The first is the story of a blind rape survivor. She was raped 16 years ago by a man well-known to her and the family. However, due to her condition (blindness), she was advised by a law enforcement officer not to continue with the rape case, as she would not be able to identify the man who had raped her.

Another woman told me how difficult it was for her to be a mother with a disability. Her child had been raped by a family friend. Because she of her disability, however, her family believed that she was an unfit mother, which is why her child had been raped under her supervision.

These two incidents indicate shortcomings in the judicial system in accommodating the voice of the most voiceless citizens of the country. It further exacerbates the prevalence of abuse towards women with disabilities. Denying women with disabilities the practice of motherhood contributes to reinforcing stereotypes of helpless victims. Such stereotypes encourage marginalisation and prejudice.

In short, while women living with disabilities persist in positioning themselves within different social contexts to create a sense of personal and collective experience, their sense of being women is constantly being constituted out of historical and social experiences. Finally, while there is no doubt that the country is progressing in addressing women’s issues, this progress needs to give voice to those continuing to be silenced and having their experiences distorted.

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