02/12/2016 05:54 SAST | Updated 02/12/2016 05:54 SAST

Young People With Disabilities Face Sexual Rights Challenges

Many young people with disabilities cannot access education in Malawi and other SADC countries, and are abused as they seek to live.

Dorothy Mausen, a 22-year-old Malawian albino woman, working at her home, in the traditional authority area of Nkole, Machinga district, on April 17, 2015.

I am a young woman with albinism. I was born into a family of six children (four boys and two girls) but we lost our eldest brother in 2003. I am from Mzimba in the north of Malawi.

As a young person with disabilities related to albinism (poor eyesight being the main issue), I have had many bad experiences around access to sexual and reproductive health rights, even though I was lucky enough to get a good education. But many young people with disabilities cannot access education in Malawi (and across the region as a whole) and I see that they are abused as they seek jobs, marriages and means of support.

Young people need to be educated about issues related to their bodies, and young people with disabilities even more so. Issues around bodily autonomy and consent need to be discussed, especially as young people with disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse. Sometimes this abuse takes place at the hands of our families, who might think of us as "money makers" who can beg for a living (or even be exploited sexually). Or a young person with disabilities might be "married off", the logic being that someone with a disability is a burden or a shame.

Most information about sexual and reproductive health rights is written in English, which is a further barrier to those who, because of their disabilities, have not been to school. Our healthcare facilities are not "disability friendly", so we cannot access even the free services and counselling they offer. If we can get there, communication with healthcare workers is a barrier, as most are not able to communicate with young people with disabilities such as hearing impairment.

And this raises issues around the right to privacy too. Because some young people with hearing or speech impairments will need interpreters to enable them to access healthcare services, they cannot discuss things privately. A young person with visual impairment might need a guide. And how does a healthcare worker untrained in communicating across these barriers teach a young person with disabilities how to put on a condom, or other important information? There might be posters on the walls, but, speaking as a person with albinism, the text is too small for people with any sort of visual impairment.

These barriers leave young people with disabilities vulnerable, because, at the moment, they are left unaware about their rights. We are at higher risk of HIV and other STDs, as well as unwanted pregnancies.

We may not be able to change our disabilities or impairments, but we can do more to ensure that some of these barriers are broken. We can recognise that people with disabilities have equal rights to sexual and reproductive health, and the right to protect themselves from abuse.

It is high time for our families, the government and our communities to help us to enjoy these rights.