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Psychiatric assessment backlog puts victims at risk

MirRIam Nonge (not her real name), an orphaned 10-year-old girl from Chimanimani in Manicaland Province suffers from hearing and speech impairment. She uses informal sign language to narrate how she was sexually abused by a 40-year-old neighbour.

“I am an orphan and stay with my grandmother,” she said. “One day on my way from school, I was sexually abused by a man who lives in my neighbourhood and l did not report to anyone. Since that day, l was scared to go to school because l was afraid to be abused by the same person.” Nonge said she started absconding school, giving various excuses to her grandmother.

“My grandmother noticed the change in my behaviour and confronted me. I finally told her, but it was not easy,” she said.

She said reporting the case to the authorities was a mammoth task because of communication barriers.

“It was difficult to communicate with the police because the officers were not versed in sign language,” she said.

“We were assisted by Leonard Cheshire Disability Zimbabwe [LCDZ] through their Access to Justice Project for Girls and Women with Disabilities. We were given two sign language interpreters to narrate my story and a statement was successfully recorded and finally the docket was compiled.”

She said her efforts to seek justice at times hit the brickwall due to limited resources until they sought assistance from LCDZ.

“They helped us with our transport needs and provided an interpreter in the courts. Thus, LCDZ engaged another person with speech impairment who understands both formal and informal sign language to communicate with me and then relay the information to the sign language interpreter who uses formal sign language who would then communicate with the magistrate,” she said.

The case took long to be concluded because of the communication barrier but the accused was eventually convicted.

Last year LCDZ assisted 190 girls and women with disabilities across the country, an increase from 2016 where 142 cases were recorded. Among the 190 cases, 148 were related to mentally challenged people.

Five of the cases have been acquitted by the courts, which is an issue of concern.

According to the World Health Organisation, women and girls with disabilities are up to three times more likely to be victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and rape.

They face multiple forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on their gender and disability —making them more isolated, marginalised, and vulnerable to violence.

The LCDZ Access to Justice for Girls and Women with Disabilities project officer Nobuhle Moyo urged the government to decentralise psychiatrist services.

“Most of the time sexual violence cases among the mentally challenged are a discovery, not a disclosure. The demand for profound mental health assessments and solid evidence being ordered by courts is disadvantaging many victims,” she said
In a bid to create a safe environment for girls and women with disabilities from gender-based violence and increasing their participation in the justice system, LCDZ supported by United Nations Trust Fund to End Violence against Women is running awareness programmes.

“LCDZ is raising awareness, which includes community dialogues involving community leaders, girls and women with disabilities, caregivers, formation of support groups, sensitisation of service providers on disability, reporting procedures and relevant laws,” said Moyo.

Perpetrators take advantage of mentally-challenged girls and women with disabilities because they believe that they will not be able to narrate their cases in a sensible or logical way.

Parirenyatwa Annexture Psychiatrist Hospital doctor Chido Rwafa said psychiatric assessment reports given to the courts to help in the administration of justice required advanced screening tests to produce a detailed assessment form other than using only questionnaires.

“The procedure of these examinations has not been systematically standardised and there is need for a clearer format of our forensic psychiatric reports to better communicate our opinions to the courts,” Rwafa said.

A United Nations Population Fund finding shows that in Zimbabwe, about one in three women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence and about one in four women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15. These include girls and women with disabilities.

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