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The Characteristics of Romantic Partnerships in Women with Acquired Physical Disabilities: Intersecting and Compounded Vulnerabilities in a Community Sample in South Africa

Hunt X, van der Merwe A, Xakayi W, Du Toit S, Hartmann L, Hamilton AB. The Characteristics of Romantic Partnerships in Women with Acquired Physical Disabilities: Intersecting and Compounded Vulnerabilities in a Community Sample in South Africa. Sexuality and Disability. 2021 Jul 31; 39:647-657.

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South Africa is a patriarchal society where women are routinely disadvantaged and subjugated, and this disadvantage is compounded by the social inequities experienced by women with physical disabilities. Patriarchal and ablest societal representations and myths work to stigmatize the sexuality of women with physical disabilities, creating barriers to participating in mutually fulfilling and equitable sexual partnerships. A dearth of information on sexual health and sexual health services tailored to the needs of persons with disabilities also creates vulnerabilities for women with physical disabilities as they engage in romantic relationships. Women with physical disabilities are more vulnerable to abuse, including emotional abuse by intimate partners than women without disabilities. The aim of this study is to explore how acquiring a physical disability from a motor-vehicle accident impacts women's romantic relationships and sense of their own sexuality, and how their altered embodiment intersects with experiences of emotional abuse and shaming societal norms. Women with acquired physical disabilities were recruited via snowball sampling and screened for eligibility, and 18 women met entrance criteria. All interview guides were translated into isiXhosa, the preferred language of participants, and trained interviewers conducted interviews. Data was analysed using thematic analysis. Women described ending romantic relationships and experiencing emotional abuse since acquiring a disability; the influence of societal norms and "culture" on romantic relationships; and the impact of disability on motherhood, and positive experiences in romantic relationships. Although some positive experiences were described, most of the findings point to the pressing need for sexual and reproductive health care services for women with physical disabilities. These services need to inform, protect, and support women through the process of reclaiming their sexual identities, and assist in the prevention of abuse.

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