Empowering women with disabilities to advocate for their rights

IZ KRUGA VOJVODINA in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund Serbia will work on empowering women with disabilities to advocate for their sexual and reproductive rights and a life free of gender-based violence in the second half of 2023. The project aims not only to empower women, adolescents, young people and marginalized groups to make decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, but also to ensure that health and other professionals (those vital to ensuring a life free of discrimination and violence for women with disabilities) perform their duties comprehensively and without prejudice.

Although Serbia’s legislative and strategic framework regarding the sexual and reproductive rights and protection form gender-based violence of women with disabilities is satisfactory, the situation on the ground is rife with challenges. Women with disabilities regularly face discrimination in their interactions with healthcare professionals. This is further complicated by the unfortunate fact that many healthcare professionals believe that women with disabilities have no need for reproductive healthcare and are not exposed to violence. Sadly, many women are even deprived of making their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. In addition, information regarding the sexual and reproductive rights and protection of violence of women with disabilities is scarce and not readily available in accessible formats.

In addition to medical staff lacking training on how to work with people with disabilities, women wait a long time on specialist examinations and the scheduling system is not accessible to all. Furthermore, many institutions and services for protection against violence against women and medical institutions are inaccessible for women with different types of disabilities, and gynecological departments do not have hydraulic gynecological chairs, making examinations practically impossible for many women. There are also widespread prejudices about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood of women with disabilities, just like that women with disabilities are not exposed to gender-based violence.

Women with disabilities deserve to live in a system that supports their sexual and reproductive health and protects them from gender-based violence. In working towards that become a reality for women with disabilities, it is necessary to first develop a general understanding of this problem.

The first working meeting on the project was held last week, where the executive director of the IZ KRUGA VOJVODINA, the project coordinator, the administrative assistant and the field assistants engaged to carry out preparatory activities for educational sessions and advocacy action met. The project team familiarized with the project proposal and the implementation plan, and it was agreed that in the coming period the field associates examine potential partnerships for the realization of educational activities and advocacy action in the municipalities of Ruma, Niš, Zaječar and in the Golubinci (village in the municipality of Stara Pazova), and to examine the logistical conditions in these municipalities (transportation for women with disabilities, accessible spaces, and similar). In addition, it was agreed that in the coming period the project team will consult the existing literature, the materials of the program We decide and of IZ KRUGA VOJVODINA, and, based on them, prepare a proposal for informative and educational materials for future activities, and the first informative release about the project.

The project aims to empower women to advocate for themselves. That is why some of the educators are women with disabilities that have received mentorship support as part of the Initiative of Women with Disabilities for the Promotion of Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Serbia. The educational sessions will target professionals and other stakeholders and will seek to deconstruct prejudices regarding disability. Attendees will be familiarized with both the Guidelines for the Treatment of Women with Disabilities, developed by IZ KRUGA VOJVODINA, and Key Messages for The Path to Equality for Women and Young Persons with Disabilities, developed by We Decide program.

The advocacy action will take place in one of the communities hosting the educational sessions following a mapping of obstacles in exercising sexual and reproductive rights and protection from gender-based violence by the participants. Care will be taken to include women with different types of disabilities so that the mapping is as comprehensive as possible. This approach strengthens advocacy and contributes to a better understanding of the circumstances all women with disabilities find themselves in. The mapping results will also be made available to policy-making intersectoral mechanisms working on new strategic frameworks.

Another key goal of the project is to improve access to information about sexual and reproductive health and rights of women with disabilities and the prevention of violence, abuse, and exploitation. IZ KRUGA VOJVODINA will translate, prepare, and adapt in local official languages and accessible formats relevant key information materials and hand them out during the project’s capacity-building sessions. These materials will also be distributed in local health facilities, CSOs of persons with disabilities, centers for social work, and to other relevant stakeholders, and posted and shared on social networks during the duration of the project

This project is in line with the Strategy for Improving the Position of Persons with Disabilities in the Republic of Serbia for the Period 2020-2024, which envisages capacity building for health professionals and enhanced accessibility to informational materials. It is also in line with the National Program for Preserving and Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health of Citizens of Serbia, which envisages improved access to informational materials in this field for all citizens.

Vanja Petrovic

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