Not much is known about how to improve women’s reproductive health care for women living with intellectual disabilities.  The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities explains intellectual disability (formerly mental retardation) as a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behaviour, which covers many everyday social and practical skills.  This disability is traditionally defined as those which have originated organically during the developmental period – namely, before the age of 18 - but it is possible for people to acquire brain injuries at later stages of life due to physical or chemical impact.

Women living with intellectual disabilities are oftentimes victims of the fallacious perception of being asexual, incapable of being in a sexual relationship, and incompetent in terms of bearing and raising children.  Because of these false – but prevalent – assumptions, access to information and variety of reproductive health services are relentlessly limited.  Such myths and misconceptions see women living with intellectual disabilities not be taken into consideration during the design and implementation of sexual and reproductive health information, outreach, and intervention.  It is worth noting that women living with intellectual disabilities are as likely to be as sexually active as people without disabilities, and sexual risk factors are the same among persons living with disabilities and those who do not.

Many women living with intellectual disabilities lack both formal and informal opportunities to learn about sexuality, let alone receive education about their sexual health and rights.  Consequently, dubious sources such as television become the ultimate source of information, which oftentimes does more harm than good, given the mischaracterization and misconceptions depicted in most media about sexual and romantic relationships.  Lack of practical knowledge, for instance, about how to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infections or an unplanned pregnancy renders women living with intellectual disabilities more vulnerable to infection, sexual violence, and assault.

Conversations about the sexual and reproductive health of women living with intellectual disabilities have been lacking, and many women living with intellectual disabilities face double discrimination; firstly due to the limited status of women, and secondly due to the stigma and ignorance around disability.  Accordingly, women living with disability are oftentimes left to navigate a hostile world, rife with prejudice.  In some societies, this stigma has led to women living with intellectual disabilities being “hidden” from society by their families – both as a protective measure, and to conceal shame.  Some of these families may not want to be involved, nor put effort in providing proper care for a female family member living with intellectual disabilities because she may be seen as a futile “project” – a cruelly dehumanizing presumption that must be eradicated across all social and political strata. Harrowingly, many women living with intellectual disabilities have been subjected to eugenic involuntary sterilization – a human rights violation that earns no justification and warrants no excuse.  Regrettably, many women living with intellectual disabilities undergo sterilization under duress, or without giving any form of consent at all.

Both forced sterilization and forced abortion are often administered to women living with disabilities who have been deemed incapable of experiencing the full range of emotional and physical reactions, not least of which are the sensations of pain and pleasure.  Justifications for this inhumane practice include paternalistic desires to prevent pregnancy and manage menstruation, but are often presented without consideration to the victim’s bodily autonomy.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities requires State signatories to provide people living with disabilities the same range, quality, and standard of health care and programs that would otherwise be provided to any other people.  This includes the area of sexual and reproductive health.  Unfortunately, however, these abuses take place behind closed doors – and this secrecy makes vulnerable women living with disabilities more likely to fall victim without recourse, protection, or justice.

The rights of women living with disabilities must be placed at the forefront of all advocacy and engagement around sexual and reproductive health and rights.  After all, the entire concept of International Development is stitched into the fabric of collective action for the undeserved, underrepresented, and undervalued.  It is vital that those seeking to validate the experiences and lives of others in the space of sexual and reproductive health and rights actively represent the interests of those whom are most subject to exploitation: the very people whom, for all the above reasons, are more vulnerable to exploitation and harm than almost anyone.

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