Magazine article New Internationalist

Body Blows

Magazine article New Internationalist

Body Blows

Article excerpt

The people that I 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.

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.'

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 tnucbanja (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?

Spiralling crisis

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. …

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