“I was almost raped at the age of 11 by my uncle,” says Josephine Aska, Director of the Federation of Deaf Women Empowerment Network in Kenya (FEDWEN-K). “Luckily, my father discovered the assault and intervened.”

Aska was also in an abusive marriage. Realizing that people with disabilities are vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, she started to advocate for the rights of deaf women. Most of FEDWEN-K’s beneficiaries are victims of sexual and gender-based violence, Aska says.

Njoki (not her real name) is a member of FEDWEN-K who was raped when she was in sixth grade. She had her two daughters through rape. Her first-born daughter was raped when she was in sixth grade, too, by Njoki’s employer. Njoki says she was scared to speak up about these crimes until she met FEDWEN-K members who had similar experiences. She was also unaware of her rights and unable to communicate without a sign language interpreter.

SGBV forum in Nairobi

In October 2016, FEDWEN-K volunteers attended a sexual and gender-based violence regional conference held in Nairobi by the Norwegian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Rahab Kimatu and Josephine Kakoma, who also represent the Kenya National Association of the Deaf, stressed how important it is to engage persons with disabilities in preventing disaster risk and conflict, and in building resilient societies. Too often, they said, the needs and rights of persons with disabilities are left out when governments and humanitarian actors make policy and deliver assistance. One of the tweets tagged #sgbvnairobi recaps Kimatu and Kakoma’s advice during the event. Their question about what is being done for people with disabilities to be able to report sexual and gender-based violence to the police was also tweeted.

Increased risks in crises

Kakoma spoke of the time she missed out on food distribution in her neighbourhood as she could not hear the public announcements. She said women with disabilities are at high risk of sexual and gender-based violence during disasters and in armed conflict. The vulnerabilities they face in their everyday lives are exacerbated during emergencies, as rescue efforts may not be tailored for persons with disabilities. She stressed that law and order and family and community structures often break down during a crisis, which puts women, children and elderly persons with disabilities at heightened risk of neglect and abuse.

Aska says a key point is that FEDWEN-K’s input will be part of an action plan developed during the forum. “At the forum, we gained new insights and networking contacts that further enable deaf women to voice our concerns and set up partnerships,” says Aska.

Rights violations

Several members of FEDWEN-K have experienced human rights violations. One member lost four custodial cases in court due to lack of a sign language interpreter in the proceedings, Aska said. A member was subjected to sterilization without consent while another – and adult woman – was forced by her parents to have an abortion. These violations have led the women to become more aware of their sexual and reproductive rights, and to advocate for them.

FEDWEN-K’s primary focus is to ensure that persons with disabilities, with a focus on deaf women, have access to education and employment opportunities, are aware of their human rights and are fully included in community policies and programmes. Aska says that in her experience it is rare that conferences give a platform for deaf women to speak about their challenges.  “It takes more time to interpret, hence deaf people are rarely included as delegates,” she added.

Renewed efforts for deaf women

Cooperation with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will help stem sexual and gender-based violence against persons with disabilities, Aska believes. She and members of FEDWEN-K are optimistic about the way forward after meeting some 50 sexual and gender-based violence prevention experts at the Nairobi forum. IFRC’s Gender and Diversity Coordinator Tina Tinde extended the invitation to the disability community in Kenya. Since the forum, Aska and her team have upped their efforts to be a voice for persons with disabilities in Nyeri, Nakuru, Kirinyaga, Murang’a, Embu, Laikipia and Kakamega counties.

Aska points out that more gender and diversity workshops are key to sensitizing persons with disabilities, especially women, about their rights and providing legal aid where a violation has already occurred. “Partnerships between IFRC and grassroots organizations are fundamental in ensuring inclusive action plans and positive outcomes,” Aska says.