The Sexual Abuse of Deaf Women: a Human Rights Scandal

    Imagine living in a home that is also, strangely, a foreign country, where you can neither fully understand what is going on, let alone be understood. Now imagine your life was like that 24 hours a day—every single day. This is the plight of women like Anica and Diane,* two deaf women in their 20s, who—like many other Deaf women—have been sexually abused.

    By Lila Ramos Shahani ( | Updated March 30, 2015 – 12:00am

    Imagine living in a home that is also, strangely, a foreign country, where you can neither fully understand what is going on, let alone be understood. Now imagine your life was like that 24 hours a day—every single day. This is the plight of women like Anica and Diane,* two deaf women in their 20s, who—like many other Deaf women—have been sexually abused.

    Anica, born deaf, is a petite woman with a bubbly disposition. But behind the sunny demeanor lies a deep scar. During her teenage years, she was sexually molested by an uncle. The case remains unreported because she is too afraid to file a report.

    Living in the same compound as her uncle, she harbors a terrible fear not only of family retaliation but also of being misunderstood by the police, given a lack of trustworthy interpreters. She has little motivation to push through with her case.

    Many abused Deaf women share Anica’s plight. Desperate, they feel there is nowhere to turn for help. Most are hesitant to confide in family members because of long-standing communication barriers.

    Diane, both taciturn and mercurial, is another survivor. Linguistically isolated since early childhood, she can only communicate through gestures and drawings. Her chronicle is heart wrenching: she was trafficked from her rural hometown to a large city, where she was forced to work in the sex trade, from which—after several harrowing experiences—she finally escaped.

    Then she went through what the system had to offer: Diane was shuffled from one government agency to another; lived in a shelter for women and children; was put into foster care for one and half years—before her family was found and she was eventually returned home.

    Tragically, these are not anomalies. Indeed, the numbers in this context are genuinely disturbing: according to the former Philippine Deaf Resource Center (PDRC), one out of every three Deaf women in the Philippines is sexually harassed or raped. Half of the cases happen in the victim’s own home, with neighbors and even family members being the most common perpetrators. Despite the general decrease in rape cases throughout the country, rape remains the most widespread crime against Deaf women.

    To press charges against her traffickers, Diane would have needed an accredited interpreter to give her testimony (otherwise, the authorities might deem it hearsay), but she was not provided with one. Indeed, throughout her entire stay at the shelter, she had no access to any interpreters at all.

    Diane also appears to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but has never been diagnosed or treated because her deafness makes communication a constant challenge.

    In a 2012 report by the PDRC, it was noted that a lack of awareness and sensitivity in dealing with disabled persons continuously bogs down our legal and judicial systems. For example, the inappropriateness of assigning male interpreters for female victims of rape and sexual violence may cause further trauma.

    Improvements are called for in handling the processing of Deaf complainants: from the reporting of cases in police stations; to medico-legal examination of rape victims; and throughout the duration of court proceedings.

    PDRC reports that, in 108 rape cases with known data, 88 of the cases (81%) involve a hearing male perpetrator. This means that Deaf female complainants in court proceedings must struggle, while male respondents face fewer communication disadvantages. Access to competent and trustworthy legal representation and interpretation also has a huge impact on the success of such cases.

    But other pernicious problems persist: when signing affidavits drawn up by the police, even those trained in Filipino Sign Language (FSL) or Signing Exact English (SEE) do not necessarily understand affidavits written in Filipino, English or other languages. According to the PDRC, most of the time, there is no interpreter to explain the affidavit to the Deaf. Furthermore, they report that informal interpreters for the Deaf often don’t sign well and sometimes cannot sign at all.

    Some interpreters don’t possess adequate skills to interpret for a court hearing, and thus both hearing and Deaf interpreters grapple with legal jargon. Finally, many Deaf complainants and accused are poor and uneducated. For unschooled deaf parties who do not know either FSL or SEE, there is a need for a Deaf relay interpreter (who translates the informal gestures of the Deaf) to communicate with a hearing interpreter (who then translates the message to the social worker)—which unfortunately many Deaf victims simply cannot afford.

    In communicating with courts—prosecutors, lawyers and judges—many are also not aware of the existence of the two Supreme Court policies that require lower courts to spend for, and provide, sign language interpretation for Deaf parties in any given case.

    Today, two House bills for the provision of interpreters in court and in the media remain pending.

    Bearing the brunt of society’s ignorance and general insensitivity towards difference, Persons with Disability (PWDs) suffer from this narrow and oppressive perspective. Negative attitudes toward PWDs are deeply rooted in our culture, with the misguided assumption that disability inadvertently reflects an absence of will. Physical and mental impairment are feared and ridiculed, and rarely accepted or understood.

    Deeply-rooted stereotypes about deaf people, for example, accounts for their often destitute conditions. In the Philippines, where unemployment hovered at around 6% and underemployment at around 19.5% in 2014, the figures for PWDs are alarmingly high. The College of St. Benilde researched Deaf employment in Makati, Quezon City, Cavite and Batangas and found that only 47% of the Deaf were employed—the majority in menial jobs. In rural areas, the numbers are much higher. According to Discovering Deaf Worlds, the unemployment rate of the Filipino Deaf may be as high as 90–95%. The result is pervasive economic oppression that condemns many highly capable Deaf people to lives of poverty.

    PWDs have always been a marginalized sector: the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA)—formerly the National Statistics Office (NSO)—reports that, in the 2000 Census, PWDs totaled 942,098 (or only 1.23% of the entire population). Of this number, 121,598 are hearing impaired—a minimum number, since undocumented and unreported cases remain deeply prevalent.

    This lack of updated and accurate data about PWDs in the Philippines has been acknowledged by the PSA and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP).

    UN-ESCAP points out that an assessment of only about 1% of PWDs is far below estimated World Health Organization rates for developing countries. The difference is probably caused by variations in the concept, measurement method, and manner of data collection. This means there is still no exclusive survey for PWDs in the Philippines because there is low demand for data and no comprehensive research design to cover this type of study.

    Because of inadequate services and facilities, staunch advocates like Liwanag Caldito of Support and Empower Abused Deaf Children, Inc. (SEADC), as well as the Filipino Deaf Women’s Health and Crisis Center, are constantly working to raise awareness about the availability of resources for the Deaf. Though often underappreciated and obscure, the voices of these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become a prominent mouthpiece for the Deaf.

    In light of the scarcity of data on PWDs, NGOs like PDRC under Dr. Lisa Martinez have also undertaken impressive initiatives, collecting data about the Deaf community on their own. Their six-year monitoring report (released in 2012) shows that the Deaf are among the most vulnerable of all the country’s PWDs.

    Anica and Diane highlight the psycho-social and communication problems many Deaf women face. Today, their perpetrators remain at large. Neither case has been reported to the proper authorities. These two women bear the weight of the transgressions against them with little hope of one day seeking redress. In contrast, teenage Mara* was able to get her abuser—her own Special Education teacher–successfully prosecuted in large part because of the financial aid of family friends from within the Deaf community. But this remains an exception, given the relative poverty of most Deaf women, and points to serious inadequacies in the way state and non-state institutions deal with the Deaf.

    Protecting all PWDs, especially Deaf women–particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse—should be a primary responsibility of both.

    The quest for justice can be daunting. One contribution would be to create a society where hand movements, no longer empty gestures, become actions that are louder than words, because behind each gesture is the articulation of an unknown sign reflecting a complex and nuanced world. Time, perhaps, to heed the voices of Deaf women, transcending the space—no matter how slow the pauses—between silence and sound.

    *Names have been changed for their privacy and protection.