When Marwei (24) became pregnant she could not disclose her condition due to cultural taboos associated with pregnancy out of wedlock in Zimbabwe. To make her situation worse she was born with a speech and hearing impairment. Marwei died at age 25 neglected at her mother’s rural homestead. She never disclosed who had made her pregnant. Negative traditional beliefs leave people with disabilities unprotected from abuse by family members, relatives and other sexual predators. To make the situation worse people with hearing and speech impairments are often left out in HIV programmes.

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Ephraim Baliya, Board Chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Association for the Deaf (ZIMNAD) explaining the use of signage to develop the HIV dictionary.

The Forgotten Tribe, People with Disabilities in Zimbabwe published by Progressio in 2006 highlights that “Awareness-based interventions that have strong information, education and communication components have failed to look at the needs of those with visual and hearing impairments and those that are mentally disabled or severely physically disabled”.
In some African cultures, it is often difficult to discuss or freely verbalise sexual topics but sign language provides a new opportunity to deliberate on HIV issues openly without fear of taboo. Yet in Zimbabwe, this opportunity has been essentially under-utilised as people with speech and hearing impairments are often portrayed or perceived as perpetual minors with little sexual desires or none.
Despite the significant drawbacks in Zimbabwe, speech and hearing impaired adults have undertaken a major first step to self-empowerment by taking the lead efficiently to respond to their own unique needs that determine their access to HIV services through their organisation, the Zimbabwe National Association for the Deaf (ZIMNAD).
We have so many people with hearing challenges and the dictionary will go a long way in improving our communication on HIV issues
Ephraim Baliya, Board Chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Association for the Deaf
“HIV awareness programmes rarely take into account the specific needs of people with hearing and speech impairments,” said Christine Sithole, National Director of ZIMNAD.
“Providing information in itself is not adequate to change attitudes and behaviour, there is need to translate this information to suit the context and personal experiences of their lived realities,’ she added.
As a first creative step, the local organisation with assistance from the National AIDS Council and UNAIDS brought together instructors from all ten provinces of the country to develop a nationally harmonised HIV sign language dictionary that will serve as a strong basis for a specific national HIV programme.
‘We have so many people with hearing challenges and the dictionary will go a long way in improving our communication on HIV issues" said Ephraim Baliya, Board Chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Association for the Deaf, who has both a speech and hearing impairment.
According to Progressio, Zimbabwe has a population of 1.4 million disabled persons although no information is available on how many people have speech and hearing impairments.
“We want the vision of the three zeroes to be realised and everyone to be taken on-board. Many people with hearing challenges have been left behind,” urged Sithole. “This is a step forward towards achieving the three zeroes. We cannot achieve this vision while a significant part of the population is excluded.”
Raymond Yekeye, the Operations Director of the National AIDS Council, reiterated that the Government is fully aware of the unique needs of people with disabilities. He said that the Zimbabwe National AIDS Strategic Plan II (2011-2015) has been developed to promote an enabling policy and legal environment for vulnerable populations.
Hearing impairment and deafness is a major disability, which limits an individual’s access to education, employment and general social integration. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 4.5% of the populations in developing countries have disabling hearing impairment.