Change-makers in Serbia: 5 women with disabilities who are championing sexual and reproductive health
14 January 2021
BELGRADE, Serbia — From getting a doctor’s exam to starting a family, things that many people take for granted can seem beyond reach for women and girls with disabilities. In Serbia, around 8 per cent of the total population — nearly 600,000 people, the majority of them women and girls — lives with some kind of disability. Yet they are far from being treated equally, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health.
One in five women and adolescent girls with disabilities in Serbia say they have difficulty accessing needed health services, according to a study carried out by UNFPA and Iz Kruga Vojvodina, an organization providing support to women with disabilities. One in four are unsatisfied with the sexual and reproductive health services they do receive. One in seven have never had a gynaecological examination. And only one in four say they can freely and independently decide if they want children, or have their family’s support in doing so.
These multi-layered challenges are perpetuated by persistent negative stereotypes and prejudices in society, found even among health professionals. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these difficulties. Women and young people with disabilities are nearly three times more likely than their non-disabled peers to experience sexual violence, and they are at risk of being left behind in the response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Champions for inclusivity
But women with disabilities in Serbia are leading efforts to make the world more equitable and inclusive, by raising awareness about disability, setting standards for inclusivity and championing legislation to advance their rights. And they are doing so with the support of UNFPA and its partners in government and civil society.
In 2017, Serbia adopted a National Programme for Safeguarding and Improving Sexual and Reproductive Health, becoming one of the first countries in the world to align its national priorities with international standards in this area. The programme acknowledges the obstacles and prejudices encountered by persons with disabilities that make it difficult for them to exercise their right to sexual and reproductive health.
Since the national programme was adopted, UNFPA has been supporting its implementation through innovative solutions that empower vulnerable women and youth to make their own reproductive choices and live a life free of violence. In 2020, UNFPA and Iz Kruga Vojvodina launched a project in five municipalities to strengthen national capacities and provide integrated sexual and reproductive health services for women with disabilities.
Women with disabilities leading the way
Through this project, women from the municipalities of Raska, Temerin, Uzice, Valjevo and Vranje are learning about reproductive rights, mapping barriers and creating local solutions. And the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped them. Meet just five of these women, who have joined forces with others in their communities to become advocates for change:
1. Dusica Sretenovic from Raska
Whenever she goes for a gynaecological check-up, Dusica Sretenovic faces a major difficulty: getting up onto the examination table. After mapping barriers like this, she and her peers with disabilities in Raska met with local policymakers to offer and advocate for solutions to their problems. As a result, local authorities have backed the acquiring of a hydraulic examination table that will improve accessibility for women with disabilities. “I broke down many of my own prejudices during this process,” Sretenovic says. “I have the right to ask for equal treatment regarding sexual and reproductive health, and the state is obliged to support me in this.”
2. Gordana Stojanovic from Vranje
Working with other women with disabilities in her city, Gordana Stojanovic made great strides in less than a year: getting a hydraulic table for gynaecological check-ups back into service, making a movie about the barriers they face in Vranje and successfully advocating for the adoption of a local memorandum that prioritizes the needs of women with disabilities during and after pandemics. Coming from a place where women are traditionally in the shadow of men and reproductive health and rights are seen as a taboo subject, Stojanovic also says she now feels confident to talk openly about topics she was not comfortable addressing before. “Women with disabilities often feel like second-class citizens, of no use to the community,” she says. “We have to make more efforts than others to show that we are also capable of sexual and reproductive lives.”
3. Marija Sofranac from Valjevo
“Many people think that women like us, women in wheelchairs, cannot become wives or mothers,” says Marija Sofranac. “We hardly ever get that chance.” But by connecting with other women in her city through workshops and other online events during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marija Sofranac is helping put the sexual and reproductive health of women with disabilities on the agenda in Valjevo for the first time.
4. Ana Djokic from Uzice
Like many women with disabilities, Ana Djokic often faced barriers to getting the information she needed about sexual and reproductive health. The topic was taboo in her family, and she was surrounded by the belief that people like her should not have a sexual life at all. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, Djokic and other women with disabilities from Uzice were able to learn through Zoom sessions about sexual and reproductive health – and advocating for their rights. As a result, they were able to initiate dialogue with local authorities on how to advance the status of women with disabilities. “I gained self-confidence from these sessions to surmount specific obstacles when it comes to health care,” Djokic says. “So get informed and get activated! You will succeed!”
5. Monika Zunji from Temerin
Active in local organizations that support persons with disabilities, Monika Zunji created a short movie that captures the barriers women with disabilities face when trying to access sexual and reproductive health services. Her film has sparked discussion on the topic among local authorities, and helped her realize her potential. “These activities pushed me out of my comfort zone a bit, and broke down the prejudices I had about myself – that I am not capable of being a leader due to my difficulty in speaking,” Zunji says. “Our life is not always easy, but it is always worth fighting for our rights.”