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People living with disabilities forced into marriage and sexual violence

A new report uncovers the sad stories of Tanzanians with albinism and disabilities.

The parents of a woman with disabilities arranged for her to be sexually abused to “take care of her sexual desire”. In another case, a woman with albinism was raped by nine men who thought it would bring them riches.

These are the stories of women with disabilities who are exploited sexually, threatened and mistreated in Tanzania, which have been published in a report titled Disability and Old Age are not a Curse, launched on Wednesday.

The research was conducted between 2012 and 2016 by the charity Sightsavers, the disability rights organisation ADD International and HelpAge International, which advocates for the rights of elderly people, in partnership with the Ikafara Health Institute in Dar es Salaam.

People with disabilities in Tanzania are regular victims of sexual violence and gender discrimination, the report found. Many disabled people are also treated poorly by family members or taken advantage of.

Peer researchers, some of whom were people with disabilities, gathered 106 stories in the rural area of Nachingwea, in the south of Tanzania and the Kibaha urban municipal council in the east.

Residents were actively involved in the project, says Margo Greenwood of Sightsavers.

“The kind of data we got is rich. It is coming from someone in the community, someone with a disability talking to someone in their own dialect about issues they both understand,” says Greenwood. “The researchers told us this meant that people were very open and willing to talk to them.”

Women forced to marry 

The report found “women with disabilities have been frequently humiliated by being forced to live with men who were not of their choice”, because parents of children with disabilities were taking over the role of choosing a fiancé or life partner.

One such case is a girl with intellectual disability living with her parents in a village. “Her parents had found her a man whose role was to take care of her sexual desire,” the report explains. The researchers tried to discuss this with the parents, but they said “they had the right to select someone who could take care of their daughter”.

“We felt very sorry because the girl had the right to select someone to marry herself, but we think this was done because she was a person with disabilities.”

A lack of empathy was also reported as a contributing factor for family difficulties. Most disabled women are dependent on their husbands’ incomes.

“The man who played an intermediary role in our marriage told the father of my child that, according to his religion, he should provide support to the mother and child …” a woman with a hearing impairment told the peer researchers. “However, my husband refused to provide me with support. He supports only his child.”

Greenwood says the researchers found domestic abuse does not only come from spouses but also from other family members. Sometimes the man’s family treats his disabled wife as a servant and men who marry disabled women are often convinced by their friends to leave their partners.

People with albinism raped

People with albinism suffer extensive abuse, especially in election times because some people believe the limbs of people with albinism can bring good luck. One researcher noted: “A woman with albinism was living alone. Since there are beliefs associating albinism with good fortune in our community, she was raped by nine people who wanted to get rich. She got infected with HIV.

“Since she had no alternative, she went on begging and got skin cancer. As she was suffering from skin cancer, she didn’t know what to do to survive. As I am talking to you, she continues to beg while being infected with HIV and having skin cancer.”

The marginalisation of people with disabilities begins in the family, says Felician Mkude, secretary general of Shivyawata, the umbrella disability organisation in Tanzania.

“When someone is born with a disability, most of the families say it is a curse,” he explains. “There is over-protection as well, where children with disabilities are not allowed outside, where they don’t even know the children in their own street.”

Adri Kotze is a senior investigative journalist and Bhekisisa's former Africa editor. Follow her on Twitter @adrikotze.