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FRANCISTOWN, Botswana—“Accessing condoms and other contraceptives is quite difficult for us because there is a huge communication barrier between us and those assisting us. They do not understand sign language. We feel neglected and this puts us at a greater risk of contracting HIV, other STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and [having] unplanned pregnancies.”

These are the words of Keoleboge Khumoetsile, 27, who advocated for the hearing-impaired community at the first-ever National Stakeholder Platform on Comprehensive Condom Programming for Botswana.

Ms. Khumoetsile said that because most health service providers do not understand sign language, she is always forced to have a sign language interpreter to express her needs, which is an invasion of her privacy.

I don’t need a third person to know where or when I get condoms.

“I don’t need a third person to know where or when I get condoms,” she explained.

People living with disabilities are widely believed to be asexual and many experience negative attitudes from service providers. This presents one of the greatest impediments to young people with disabilities accessing sexual and reproductive health services.

Double layer of vulnerability

Tshepo Raditladi, 29, who is visually impaired, views young women living with disability as having a double layer of vulnerability.

Imagine living your life in darkness because you can't see. That is another layer of vulnerability.

Tshepo Raditladi, 29, has suffered stigmatization throughout his life for being visually impaired. © UNFPA Botswana/Priscilla Rabasimane

Women are vulnerable to abuse just because they are women, he said. Add to this a visual impairment: “Imagine living your life in darkness because you can't see. That is another layer of vulnerability.”

Mr. Raditladi said that condoms, both male and female, should be labelled in Braille to make it easier for the visually impaired to read the expiry date and the flavour of the condom. 

More than 90,000 people in Botswana live with a disability, according to the Botswana Demographic Survey 2017. People with disabilities continue to experience stigma in most aspects of their lives. For instance, the majority of adolescent girls living with disabilities are denied access to reproductive health care and sexuality education yet, like all girls, they are entitled to sexual and reproductive health and rights under international law.

Taking action, making change

Millions of young people around the world lack access to sexual and reproductive health, including family planning. The situation is even more challenging for people with disabilities, who are often unaware that they, too, have a right to make choices about their own health and sexuality.

It is precisely these challenges that have strengthened Ms. Khumoetsile and Mr. Raditladi’s determination to promote the welfare of people living with disabilities.

Mr. Raditladi works as an advocacy officer for the Botswana Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted (BABPS), an organization that strives to enhance sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV and AIDS education and access to information for blind and visually impaired people in Botswana, to close the gaps identified. Through BABPS, the blind and visually impaired now have access to condoms with packaging printed in Braille.

Ms. Khumoetsile and Mr. Raditladi are optimistic that their efforts will make a difference for the next generation. Moreover, empowerment programmes that promote access to sexual and reproductive health services for young people living with disabilities will continue to target marginalized young people and those furthest left behind.

Young people with disabilities represent a segment of society that is left behind. UNFPA works with partners to ensure sexual and reproductive health services are comprehensive and inclusive of all.

  • The national comprehensive condom programming meeting, organized by UNFPA in partnership with the National AIDS and Health Promotion Agency (NAHPA) brought together a wide range of condom stakeholders, including government departments, development partners, the private sector, national and international NGOs, civil society, UN agencies and members of the different communities. The meeting was part of advocacy efforts by UNFPA to ensure fulfillment of the aspirations of the Global Prevention Coalition (GPC), of which Botswana is a member. The GPC brings together United Nations Member States, civil society, international organizations and others in an effort to reduce new HIV infections by 75 per cent by 2020. The meeting will culminate in the development of a national condom programming strategy.

- Priscilla Rabasimane