Spreading the word: Deaf Women, We Can!

Mike Clulow | Apr 10, 2018
In Zimbabwe, a large group of women involved with Deaf Women Included pose for a photograph.

All women face sexism but, for many, discrimination is much more complex. As American academic Kimberlé Crenshaw notes in this TED talk, “many of our social justice problems like racism and sexism are often overlapping, creating multiple levels of social injustice.” This means that women of colour, who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, who are poor, or who are subject to many other types of prejudice face discrimination in ways that tend to be overlooked or misunderstood. To describe this, Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, alluding to the ways in which peoples’ intersecting identities shape their experiences.

Women with disabilities, including those affected by hearing loss or impairment, are one of the many groups that experience social injustice in this way. In 2015, Womankind contributed to a report titled Turning Promises into Progress, which highlighted some of the ways in which service providers, NGOs and even women’s rights organisations and movements continue to overlook and even exclude them. For example, despite often not completing primary school, women with disabilities are rarely reached by adult literacy campaigns. Similarly, although they are twice as likely to experience violence as those without disabilities, they are often overlooked by projects and services on violence against women and girls. Their sexual and reproductive health needs are frequently unmet and they face great difficulty in participating in public decision-making.

Deaf Women Included (DWI) – Womankind’s new partner in Zimbabwe – confirms this picture:

Women with disabilities virtually have no voice […] they continue to be left out of many political and democratic processes. They often […] are subjected to double discrimination, sexism as well as disability bias. Further, many lack an understanding of what women’s rights are all about because no efforts have been made to teach them about these issues. They live on the margins in their societies and encounter challenges in fitting into the women’s rights and disability rights movements.”

Importantly, these problems are not the inevitable result of being a woman with a disability: they are due to ignorance and prejudice. As DWI explain, “Our experiences … are not explained by our bodily limitations or gender but by the disabling social environments and attitudinal barriers that form part of our daily lives.

Deaf women in action

Deaf Women Included's logo, featuring their name and an array of hands using sign language.Founded in 2014 by a group of deaf women, DWI works with and for deaf women supporting them to claim their rights – especially for access to health services, education, employment and full participation in public decision making. They also campaign and lobby government, business and civil society to recognise and respect the rights of deaf women.

Sign language is one big area of work for DWI. Some women – especially in rural areas – mainly communicate through home-made signs that only close family members understand, resulting in isolation from the rest of their community. In urban areas, most deaf people know formal sign language but the lack of interpreters means their voices often remain unheard.

DWI has trained volunteers from around the country who act as points of contact in their areas. In addition, they are a member of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe and collaborate with various disabled peoples’ organisations across the country, including the Nzeve Deaf Children’s Centre, the King George VI Centre, the Henry Murray School for the Deaf, and the Zimbabwe Blind Women Trust.

Spreading the word

Social media is an important tool used by DWI to tell their story. From Facebook to Twitter to YouTube, these have ranged from the unity of African feminists to the celebration of one of South Africa’s first deaf Master’s degree holders using the message “Deaf Women, We Can.” A screenshot of a video produced by Deaf Women Included for 16 Days of Activism, where a young woman is using sign language to communicate about violence against women with disabilities.

In addition, DWI produces and shares videos on many issues using sign language with subtitles. For example, during 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence, they shared this video urging women's rights organisations to work with women with disabilities, declaring that all women with disabilities must be included in activism initiatives.” Another example is their video in the run-up to the country’s general elections encouraging voter registration: “Your vote is your voice. ... Whether deaf, blind, with albinism or any other disability, let’s go and register to vote. Do not be afraid to go because you have a disability, it’s your right to vote. Your vote counts, you can make a difference.

Womankind and DWI in partnership

As part of our commitment to understanding and addressing multiple and intersecting discrimination, Womankind has partnered with five disability-focused organisations, with DWI being one of them.

Thanks to our generous supporters, including the Evan Cornish Foundation, we have just given our first grant to DWI. Over the next year, they will use this funding to support women with disabilities – particularly young deaf women – to develop their feminist leadership skills. These women will be empowered to speak out about the issues they face and make demands from leaders across the country, including through a roundtable in Harare with representatives of the government, political parties, NGOs and women’s rights organisations. We can’t wait to see what they accomplish!

Join us!

Womankind is proud to be supporting DWI as well as the other organisations run by and for women with disabilities we have partnered with, including the Nepal Disabled Women’s Association, Women Challenged to Challenge in Kenya, Ethiopian Women with Disabilities National Association, and the National Union of Women with Disabilities of Uganda.

These incredible groups are fearlessly challenging governments and society to not only acknowledge, but work to end the overlapping and complex discrimination that women with disabilities and many others face. We invite you to join us in standing together with them.


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