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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.