If you think reporting sexual assault is difficult, try doing it as a person who is deaf. The statistics on sexual abuse in the Deaf community are distressing. According to the Philippine Deaf Resource Center, 65-70% of Deaf boys and girls have been molested. A 2005 study by Lyer and Fortunato reports that from a sample of 60 Deaf women in Cebu and Manila, one-third have been raped. A 2002 study by De Guzman in 2002 reveals that out of 32 Deaf women in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, 72% were abused or battered, and 63% were abused by their fathers. And in Cebu City alone, Philippine Accessible Disability Services, Inc. (PADS) has recorded about 50 cases of sexual abuse from July 2012 up to the present day.
People who are deaf are especially vulnerable to abuse because predators are confident that they won’t be reported. “If they get abused, they cannot shout. When they report, no one understands them,” says JP Maunes, co-founder and CEO of PADS. “The stigma of being affected by sexual abuse is still high. Most families and neighborhoods don’t recognize that sexual abuse is happening in their community.”
A big part of the problem is the language barrier between Deaf people and the rest of the community. Maunes explains that a majority of parents don’t even know how to speak sign language. Instead, they leave all the communication up to teachers.
“[Teachers] have become the mediators between parents and children. It’s very sad—imagine that there is no parent-child relationship being set up because of the absence of language,” he says.
After all, the majority of sexual cases Maunes encounters are from the province, where there are no special education centers set up. He adds that Deaf women and children are often repeatedly assaulted. And in some cases, they even have more than one abuser. “They take turns. The attitude towards deaf people is they think they’re lesser [persons]. I don’t know...I’m at a loss for words whenever I talk about this situation,” Maunes says. “Nagpapalitan sila. For example, this woman was raped on Monday by Person A. The next day, Person B naman. And the sad part is that every time they report, our police have a hard time communicating with them. Most of the time, there’s this guessing game na nangyayari.”
There’s also a scarcity of FSL interpreters in the country. PADS reports that there is only one interpreter for every 60 Deaf Filipinos, and most of them are concentrated in Metro Manila. On top of that, knowing sign language alone isn’t enough. “There are legal situations—in the court or in investigations where you need an experienced or certified interpreter to handle this case,” Maunes says. “We handle cases of deaf people who don’t even know how to sign. They don’t even know their name or the names of the parents. They only use marks.”
In these cases, PADS works with two interpreters: an FSL interpreter who can hear, and a Deaf relay interpreter. When a policeman asks a question, the FSL interpreter passes the question to the Deaf relay interpreter, who then signs it to the Deaf complainant. They do this to make absolutely sure that the complainant understands the legal process and can express herself or himself accurately.
PADS has also collaborated with the Philippine National Police Regional Office to set up the Information and Police Accessibility for the Deaf (IPAD) Project. Every year, officers from the women and children’s desk undergo specialized training courses, where PADS representatives teach them how to use basic sign language and properly handle cases involving Deaf people.
“In the last four years, maganda ang turnout. We found out that there are good police officers who are passionate about their work, but there was no one available to help them. But then they found out that we’re doing this so they researched on their previous work and refiled and opened up those [old] cases,” Maunes says. “They come to us, ask for help, and together we process the case.”
He adds, “Ang daming impact talaga ng program. The officers from the women and children’s desk enjoy the training and they share their struggles in terms of handling cases. Now they are happy to work with us—they’re happy to go the extra mile in terms of learning sign language. This idea didn’t come from us, it came from them.”
IPAD is part of a larger 5-year project called Break the Silence Child Abuse Prevention Network in the Philippines (BTS-CSAP Network), whose aim is to train existing child welfare organizations from all over the country in sexual abuse prevention until they become fully-fledged Break the Silence centers. It was launched in partnership with Support Empower Abused Deaf Children (SEADC) and Stairway Foundation, Inc., whose materials and methods are used during orientation sessions.
PADS’ role in this project is to provide training on sexual abuse prevention, online safety, and gender sensitivity for Deaf women and children. They also give talks on PWD sensitivity and case handling for lawyers and paralegals, and Beginner to Advanced FSL classes for courtroom interpreters.
Thanks to the Break the Silence project, PADS was able to gather more than a hundred disclosures of sexual and physical abuse, molestation, and exploitation from Deaf students in special education centers and communities in Central Visayas, Davao, Dumaguete, Bohol, and Manila. They’ve also helped to file about 50 court cases involving Deaf women and children.
Another victory for PADS is the Break the Silence Global Run. On March 19, 2017, 3,000 people in 20 different cities from all over the world ran a half-marathon to raise awareness about sexual abuse of Deaf women and children. “We had simultaneous signing of Break the Silence in solidarity to end sexual abuse and exploitation of Deaf children and women,” Maunes adds. PADS is planning to host another run in 2018.
When asked about what people can do to help, Maunes says that these issues begin at home. So if you have any relatives who are deaf, make sure they are educated well. Learn how to communicate with them, instead of leaving it up to teachers who often handle 50 children.
Even if you don’t have any Deaf relatives, you can help by learning sign language. “FSL is a very beautiful language. I encourage young Filipinos to find organizations advocating for Deaf communities and learn sign language,” Maunes says. “Remain vigilant and be protective of children in the Deaf community instead of seeing them as lesser persons. Report any suspicious activities related to Deaf people and recognize that sexual abuse in the Deaf community is happening.”
Lastly, we can lobby for the Filipino Sign Language Act or SB 966 to be passed. If signed into law, it would recognize FSL as a national language and mandate its use in schools, broadcast media, and workplaces. This would go a long way in building a more inclusive society for our fellow Deaf citizens.