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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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