It was 2.30, beginning of October when Svetlana started her labor. The doctors were slightly bothered by the late hour at which that they were supposed to work. She was screaming from pain, but she was told to calm down- “You are not in the club!”. Some seven months before, Svetlana, an orphan young woman, a Roma ethnic, with mobility disabilities, had gone to the general practitioner’s office, where she had been advised to do an abortion.
There are around 187 thousand people having disabilities in the Republic of Moldova. Out of these, more than half got the disability during the lifetime. Besides the gender discrimination that a big part of women has to confront in the country, those with disabilities have to fight with even more prejudices. They have fewer chances of forming families if they want it, and a bigger probability to live alone or with their parents. Comparing to other groups of women, they are vulnerable to higher risks of physical and sexual abuse within the family or the host institutions, to being imposed to do an abortion or to have been transmitted HIV or other infections, one can find in the “Profile of women with disabilities”, issued in 2016 with the support of the United Nations Office in Moldova.
Svetlana has muscular dystrophy and that is why it is hard for her to move. She has a disease that advances despite the surgeries and the yearly therapeutical procedures. Until 9, she was a healthy child. Her health and the health of her seven sisters and brothers were put in danger because of the physical conditions they were living in- the family was poor and often the children were freezing during the winter.
Svetlana lives in Edineț, where she rents a dormitory room, which she shares with her son, her husband, and sister. She finished her vocational studies and now is the employee of the Sewing Workshop, opened by the Center “Regional Association for Educating Adults” Prutul de Sus (AREAP) in Briceni. Svetlana’s parents died a long time ago and thus, she together with three sisters ended up in an orphanage, where they learned how to take care of themselves.
Seven years ago, she learned she would become a mother. “The doctors, seeing my material situation as not good, tried to convince me to do an abortion. I did not have a house, nor a table. Some were asking me how I would cope with that because I cannot stay with the child in the dormitory, I would have to find rent”, says the woman.
For example, Serbia: Women in Roma communities receive less prenatal care than the general population. Although inequality in prenatal period care between wealthy and richer communities declined between 2010 and 2014, the gap with the general population continues to be significant.
The son of Svetlana is called Danu, a symbolic name for the situation she was at that time. After every medical consultation, she was weighing her choices, trying to make the right choice. “There were tears of happiness, or the horror of trouble overwhelmed me. Yes or no, yes or no, yes-no, I did not know what to do. After all, I decided to give birth to this baby because my family doctor was a very good lady who advised me to keep the pregnancy because I would have risked getting infertile if I aborted. I was not scared that I would not have anything to feed him with. What I will eat, he will that too, where there is a place for two, there is a place for three”, Svetlana remembers.
On October 7, 2010, the woman gave birth without complications. “The nurses were surprised that I, as small as I am, was able to give birth to a baby of nearly 2.8 kg”, she says. After birth, Svetlana and Danu had been hosted alone in a poorly warmed room, where the young mother had to warm her newborn with hot water bottles, which was again a cause for astonishment for the staff – “Look at her, what she can think of! ” “But I did not get angry at them, it’s something usual for me, I don’t get upset anymore. Dănuț receives me and loves me the way I am and that is the most important thing”, says Svetlana.
Even now, in the relationship with doctors, the woman has to prove she deserves a fair attitude towards her and her child. “At first sight, they think that I am Roma and that I am illiterate. With time, after the first days of hospitalization, for example, they change his mind about me. I could not even say that the gynecologist’s services are so accessible. I can move on my own feet, but I find it difficult to get on the control seat anyway. And when I tell that, she tells me not to hurry, we have time”, Svetlana explains. At the same time, she says that the town of Edineț is, however, quite adapted to the needs of people with locomotory disabilities, more public institutions are installing ramps, and hospitals have elevators. “We organize public discussions, where we discuss our problems. At one of these, I have emphasized that anyone can become a person with disabilities tomorrow or in a year. But not only do we need accessibility, the moms cannot leave their children out in the trolleys”.
„Women with disabilities and Roma ethnicity, like all people in our country, have the same rights to sexual and reproductive health services. Regretfully, although much progress has been made in this area in recent years, there is still much to be done. We refer in particular to the physical accessibility of medical institutions, the training of physicians to provide quality services, but also the changing attitudes and perceptions towards these people and non-discrimination towards them. UNFPA is the leader in reproductive health and we will continue to work with authorities, service providers, international partners and beneficiaries as well, so that all women and girls in Moldova can fully enjoy their sexual and reproductive rights, and live a dignified life.”
When it comes to sexuality, reproductive health, and family planning, women with disabilities face countless difficulties. The existing stereotypes in society, their inhibition, and stigmatization sometimes cause them to even give up their family life. Often they are not accepted as spouses/partners and mothers, and the feeling of inferiority and fear that they will not be properly understood jeopardizes the right of these women to privacy.
“We are threefold discriminated – we are women, we have disabilities and want to have a family. These are stereotypes very deeply rooted, and the attitude of society will change through successful histories that we do not lack. The company is not informed, it does not know what is the way of life of a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a prosthesis, or a blind person, etc. We adapt to the conditions and needs we have. The society perceives us as helpless, but I live alone, work, rent, do my cleaning, from morning until evening, I am in a wheelchair”, says Ludmila Iachim, project manager at the Association “Motivation” in Moldova.
She is not married, she has no children but she wants a family. She knows her rights and regularly runs routine medical checks. “The fact that I’m in a wheelchair does not mean I’m having a baby with problems. They are genetic diseases, everything depends on disability. A professional doctor explains everything to you, as I talked to my doctor. Being a gynecologist, she asked me many questions, she looked at the situation with other doctors as well as with the neuropathologist. But in no case I was told that I would be born a disabled child just because I am in a wheelchair”, says Ludmila. According to her, the fears come from the society that sees her in a wheelchair – “Oh you, poor you, how can you think of a pregnancy?” “I see things differently. I’m not moving on my feet, but with the wheelchair. And what’s the problem? There are some men who look at you and think, “Poor her, she needs so much support and help. How can I marry her?”, I tell you from my own experience”, admits the woman.
However, today, the biggest challenge for our society is to provide physical access to services for people with disabilities, in particular, the installation of ramps, the adaptation of sanitary rooms and gynecological armchairs, the building of a friendly infrastructure for women with disabilities. “Another component of limited access is the low level of knowledge of health care providers, the existence of prejudices, fears that make them discourage disabled women to conceive a child and to give birth. A recent example – a young woman who has cerebral palsy because she was born prematurely and probably had some trauma at birth, called me for a consultation, asking if she might be able to give birth to a healthy baby. The district doctor told her that if she gets pregnant, the baby will be born with the same problem. Which is obviously wrong. I have the impression that sometimes I say these untruths to women so that they do not get involved with their prenatal care, “not to ruin their indicators”, etc. At the same time, most of these women are capable of conceiving and giving birth, often by traditional methods”, says Rodica Comendant, Ph.D., associate professor and director of CIDSR- Center for Training in the Domain of Reproductive Health.
Moreover, within the framework of the last “Situational Analysis of the Problems Facing Women with Mobility Disabilities in the Exercise of Sexual and Reproductive Rights”, developed by CIDSR with the support of the UN Population Fund and other development partners, found that because of the difficult physical access to the medical institutions for persons with locomotory disabilities, the lack of ramps installed according to accessibility standards, the absence of the lift to the floor where the family doctor or the gynecologist is located, women choose not to request or completely renounce reproductive health services that are free and confidential.
In this respect, Ludmila Sîrbu, project coordinator at CIDSR, is of the opinion that each of us – family members of a disabled person, medical workers, school, public authorities and other members of the community, including people with disabilities, must understand that disability it is not an individual health problem, it is a concern of the whole society. “A woman with disabilities who spends most of her time in the family, where there is usually no culture of discussing sexuality, sexual and reproductive health and which society sees as a” sick “person, finds very difficult to benefit from family planning services, forming a couple, deciding on the birth of a child”, explains Ludmila Sîrbu.
In 2017, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities revised the Republic of Moldova and recommended to improve the situation of these people in several domains, including access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Authorities continue to make small steps towards inclusion not just on paper. Meanwhile, women with special needs remain unknown to the society. However, the struggle with existing stereotypes in society, their inhibition and stigmatization can be taken by each of us.
This article was elaborated with the support of the UNFPA, United Nations Population Fund in Moldova, and does not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations.