By Dawn Marie Roper
November 22nd, 2007
Kingston, September 28, 2006 (Panos) Life for deaf women is far from peaceful. In fact, deaf women have been identified as being extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence.For deaf women like 43 year old Florence Bailey, vulnerability is a daily part of her life.“Yesterday, I went out to walk. A man called me. He lives near me, so I went into his car. He was driving away with me so I asked him where he is going,” she said while explaining that he knew that she was deaf. “He said he wants to have sex with me. He wanted me to touch his penis while he drove but I told him no, because I am married. He said he heard I had no children and he would give me a baby.”Florence also spoke about her 34 year old deaf friend who she said, was abducted by a route taxi driver in November 2005. Florence said after everybody else got out of the taxi, her friend tried to get out. The driver held on to her bag, locked the door and drove away with her. He took her far away and raped her.“He didn’t want her to look into his face so he turned her around and had rough sex with her,” Florence said. She said her friend went to the doctor and reported it to the police and the man was arrested. But the doctor told her she caught something, but she could not understand what the doctor wrote on the paper he gave her.A similar story is told by thirty-two year old Christine Prince. The mother of three said that when she was about 12 or 13 years old, a bus driver and conductor tried to rape her. They refused to let her off the bus after everybody else had left and drove her near to some train tracks and attacked her. She said she escaped into some bushes and hid until night. She was taken home by a woman who found her wandering in the road. Her mother (who is not deaf) took her to the hospital.A study carried out by the Jamaica Council for Persons with Disabilities (JCPD) recently, revealed that hearing impaired women and girls are exposed to high levels of rape, battery, incest and carnal abuse. They are unable to adequately communicate the abuse that they have suffered, and so become vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. As a result the JCPD recently announced plans for an HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme for Deaf Women.“Many deaf women are raped five, six times and sometimes they are gang-raped,” says Valerie Spence, Administrator of JCPD. She pointed out that deaf women are at the mercy of hearing men who take advantage of them because of their disability, their lack of education and lack of employment. She pointed also out that sexual abuse is also rampant within the deaf community itself.“Deaf culture facilitates serial, multiple and shared relationships. The deaf have relationships across age groups, so a deaf man will have sex with a young girl and age is not an issue. Some deaf adults have sexual relationships with younger persons and children.”This makes them more vulnerable to contracting sexually transmitted diseases. She said HIV among the deaf is a serious concern because they receive little information about it. While information about the disease is easily available to the hearing public, HIV prevention information does not reach the deaf community because it is packaged for the hearing and literate. Many deaf persons are disadvantaged because they received little or no education as children. Many parents of deaf children think it is a waste of money to educate them. The school system also shuts them out as it cannot accommodate the deaf as it does the blind. Many deaf people therefore cannot read printed information about HIV. Ms. Spence pointed out that even when the deaf are aware of HIV, they have misconceptions about it. This makes the problem worse.“So many do not hear about HIV,” Ms. Spence said. “They have not been speaking to people living with HIV and heard their stories. Many deaf persons still see HIV as a hearing person’s disease so they will tell you that only hearing person can get HIV.”While there is no data about HIV among deaf women, Ms. Spence thinks the numbers are high.“Deaf do not like to use condoms. The community is small so it’s easy for disease to spread. Because of the frequency with which they change partners, children born to deaf women are sometimes neglected as paternity is not determined,” she said. “So there may be children who are infected. Not many persons within the deaf community have been tested. They will tell you they don’t have it because they cannot catch it.”Ms. Spence pointed out that the deaf do not trust outsiders and they will not readily discuss their problems with hearing people. Deaf women who are sexually abused by a deaf man will not report the abuser because he is one of them.
The deaf women added that they do not report abuse because the police laugh at them when they turn up to report a sexual assault.“They ask us how we know it is rape,” Prince complained. She said the police and hospital workers do not understand sign language so it is hard to talk to them. Ms. Spence explained that the JCPD had made recommendations to policymakers and met with high ranking Police officials in the past to address the problem of police insensitivity to the deaf. These efforts have not resulted in any change in police behaviour or the public at large.The alternative, according to her, is to empower the deaf women by providing them with the information they need to survive and protect themselves. This is the long term goal of the HIV/AIDS Prevention Programme. The programme will involve a series of workshops and skills building sessions, to teach these women survival skills, self-defense strategies and economic skills to make them less vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence. The programme is funded by The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).It started off last week (September 12) with about 35 deaf women and girls, mostly from Kingston and Portmore being trained. Most of them were students from the Lister Mair Gilby School for the Deaf and the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf. The deaf women participated in a self-defence class led by Cherry Natural, Poet and Martial Arts Instructor. An HIV positive woman also shared her experience with them. The seminars will continue in May Pen, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.