How deaf women are vulnerable to domestic abuse: the tragic story of Safiya

Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic abuse. A disability, such as deafness, makes victims more vulnerable to abuse, and the same disability leaves them more vulnerable to not ever being able to escape it.

Safiya is in a cellar. She’s ten years old and is deaf and mute. It’s cold and damp and she can’t hear who’s coming.

It was back in Pakistan that her mother and father died and she’s been brought somewhere dark she doesn’t know.

An elderly man slaps her. She is raped.

The man and his wife make her serve them. She cooks the meals and cleans the house. She washes their car and is told to do the same for their friends.

He beats her.

She can’t read or write and is kept away from school.

The man teaches her some sign language. Enough for her to be able to confirm her name so the family can take her disability benefits but too little for her to tell anyone what is being done to her.

She sits in the cellar packing football shirts, clothes, and mobile phone covers.

She uses the small radiator for heat.

It’s ten years later and the only way she can speak is through facial gestures.

She’s ordered to sleep on a sheet on the concrete floor. The bones in her back are sore.  

He rapes her and in her head, where she has a voice, she calls him “the bad old man”.

Ilyas Ashar, 84, was found guilty of thirteen counts of rape last week. Along with his wife, Tallat, 68, he was also found guilty of human trafficking and benefit fraud. They had used their victim to steal £30,000 over the years.

When she was found, Safiya weighed 4 stone 8 pounds.

***

Safiya isn’t her real name, of course. It seems apt, a decade later, for her identity to still be hidden, even when the horrific details of her abuse are out. Not only for legal necessity but for the way, nameless, the victims of domestic abuse are hidden by the walls of their home.

This is even more the case for women and children who have disabilities, be it in number of victims or level of vulnerability.

“Perpetrators frequently use disabled women’s impairments to abuse them further,” says Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid. “Many disabled women rely on their partners for support, which can make them even more vulnerable to domestic violence.”  

Deaf women are twice as likely as hearing women to experience domestic abuse, according to DeafHope, the only support service for women and children facing domestic violence. When we know one in four women in this country are victims of abuse in the home, this figure seems particularly stark. It’s estimated that 22 deaf women are at risk of domestic violence every day.

“It can often be even more of a struggle for disabled women to escape domestic violence because of their impairments,” adds Neate. “For financial reasons [but also] because many domestic violence support services do not have the funding needed to provide specialist support to disabled women.”

There’s a cycle at work here: disability, such as deafness, makes victims more vulnerable to abuse, and the same disability leaves them more vulnerable to not ever being able to escape it.

“Deaf women are largely unaware of where they can go for support and sometimes that what they are experiencing is actually abuse,” Steve Powell, Chief Executive of Sign Health, the national charity for deaf people which runs DeafHope, tells me.

“Of course due to language barriers they are often unable to report violence,” he adds.

Safiya’s decade-long abuse only ended by chance, when trading standards officers searched the house. They found her in the cellar, sleeping in a cot. It was only when she was taught sign language by support staff that she was able to tell the police what had been done to her.

The Ashar case is an extreme instance: one of slavery, trafficking, and concrete basements. But it brings to light an issue that goes on behind more doors than we imagine. One of easy abuse, and easy cover-ups.

Be it husbands, partners, family, or carers, an abuser is more likely to be able to isolate a deaf victim. The contrast between a deaf and mute victim and a hearing and talking abuser adds a new level of power and control. She is literally unable to speak out.

DeafHope tell me about a victim who, from the age of ten, was sexually abused by her foster father. A social worker would visit her at home but when the girl tried to communicate using sign language, the social worker could not understand her. Her foster father would act as her interpreter. The victim’s voice was never heard and the abuse continued. Unable to hear, she couldn’t even use the phone to call for help.

She eventually got out, DeafHope tells me, and is having therapy to rebuild her life. I’m told of another deaf woman, one of many who was beaten and emotionally abused by her husband. In the early hours of the morning, she used DeafHope to escape with her baby and four-year-old daughter. They gave her emergency help in British Sign Language and later medical support and help with legal teams to get her case to court. Her local refuge was unable to give her the support her disability needed but DeafHope gave them the equipment that meant she was able to stay there with her young family.

She was lucky. In the strangest way, these victims were lucky.  

***  

“Can you tell the court about your life now?” Safiya is asked.

“Love going out for walk in the fresh air. Love going to the fair and enjoy lots of different things. Also enjoy going to the college by myself on the bus,” she signs.

“The third thing I love to do is going out, going around,” she adds. “But having nothing to do with men. Sexually having nothing to do with men.”

She has spent months learning sign language to give herself a voice for the trial.

Her abusers are due to be sentenced this week.

 

It’s estimated that 22 deaf women are at risk of domestic violence every day. Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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