Knowledge to protect

Young people with disabilities struggle to access sexual and reproductive health information and services in Myanmar. Change is underway.

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For years, young people in Myanmar have faced considerable challenges accessing information and services on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The political crisis that has impacted the country since early 2021 has escalated conflict in many areas and only worsened access to health services.

The struggle is even harder for people with disabilities – who are often marginalized and face major challenges getting information and help related to their sexual and reproductive health. These include social misconceptions and stigma, social exclusion and a lack of awareness and understanding regarding people with disabilities. 

At home, parents lack SRHR knowledge and an understanding why it is important for children with disabilities – a taboo subject. Further, different types of disabilities require different customized support, which is hard to develop and deliver, complicating access even more.

Individuals with disabilities face a higher vulnerability to physical and sexual abuse, including rape, in comparison to those without disabilities. They don't just miss out on making informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health but also face a higher chance of being mistreated or harmed, mainly by their caregivers.

- Person who cares for children with disabilities

Within a challenging context, the Access to Health Fund supported the Myanmar Medical Association with narrowing the SRHR knowledge gap for individuals with disabilities. Efforts are being delivered through the Myanmar Medical Association - Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health project.

This initiative brings in organizations that include and work with people who have disabilities – creating a safe space for people to express their unique needs and concerns. These coordinated efforts highlighted the fact that many of the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities in accessing SRHR knowledge are rooted in the culturally-based stereotypes of the communities that surround them.

With inclusivity at the centre of the work, the project includes young people with disabilities as well as their caregivers into carefully planned educational sessions on adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

Upon participating in the training, I recognized the vital role parents play. We attended the training when my daughter was 10 years old. Initially, I believed it was too soon to discuss topics related to sexuality education. However, I later understood that this knowledge can help avoid unnecessary repercussions resulting from a lack of understanding of SRHR.

Daw Myint Myint - Parent of a child who has an intellectual impairment

The project developed a user-friendly educational approach to encourage all people to participate in interpersonal educational sessions. It involves creating SRHR materials in sign language, producing audio/visual versions and incorporating Braille to reach as many people as possible. 

Hay Mar volunteers her time at a school for people with visual impairments. She participated in the training. Visually impaired herself, she had never attempted to acquire knowledge about SRHR because she had been told that it was a taboo subject. She did not have much knowledge on subjects like family planning, hormonal changes or menstrual cycles.

Now that I possess this knowledge, I don't limit sharing it with individuals with disabilities. I also share it with my friends who have children. This way, they can take steps to protect their children from sexual harassment and the various consequences of not having access to this information.

Hay Mar - Volunteer at a school for people with visual impairments

Earlier this year and supported by Access to Health, the Myanmar Medical Association introduced a new accessible mobile app to reach more people with SRHR knowledge. Efforts are also underway to introduce a wider service network of general health practitioners who support adolescent sexual and reproductive health for people with disabilities.

All images featured in this article were generated using artificial intelligence tools. The characters depicted in these images are fictitious in nature, and used for illustrative purposes only. Any resemblance these characters have to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.