Refusing to be silent on the topic of abuse
THE morning is cool and sunny but everyone is too busy to notice it. There’s a mixed group standing in a small community hall, deep in discussion, gestating and looking to one another. A baby cries out for milk but the calls do not distract the mother, who is deep in conversation. The cries do not attract the attention of the other participants, either.
The discussions this group of people have involves their upper bodies. It takes a great deal of facial movement and hand expression to get the point across. At the end of the discussion hands are thrown in the air and shook about, of course, in Myanmar sign language, this motion represents clapping.
In fact, this is a mixed group of deaf communicators. Some can communicate using learned sign language, meaning these individuals have likely been deaf their entire lives while others are able to rely on lip reading, a skill more readily available to those who lost their hearing at some point in their lives but retain important memory of auditory communication.
This particular morning’s discussion centres around a lecture hosted the night before by the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative for the benefit of the deaf community. The lecture was tackling a serious, endemic national problem that normally will not be spoken about; domestic and gender based violence.
Domestic violence is the physical bullying, attacking or overpowering of family members against their will, or to cause them harm through force, or threatened force. Statistically, it is overwhelmingly men who exert raw, brutal power over their wives and children but the dynamics of domestic violence can be as unique as the individuals involved.
Gender based violence is specific to relationships between men and women. Generally couples, generally men against women. These differing but intertwined issues are difficult discussions in Myanmar, and further difficult to quantify due to the culture of silence that surrounds domestic and gender based violence. Patriarchy retains a strong grip on the culture of partnerships.
Within that purview, marginal communities, such as the deaf, are more prone to fall victim to these social ills. Gender discrimination is suffered more by the deaf community than in the rest of society due to “language barriers, lower levels of educational achievement and conservative values”, according to U Kyaw Kyaw, programme director of the Myanmar Deaf Community Development Association, which organised the awareness training (U Kyaw Kyaw is himself deaf). “They don’t know they are being discriminated against based on gender and face frequent adversity” he added.
Parents (of deaf women) generally are very concerned for their safety and so keep them at home and sheltered. This is a form of discrimination. Being kept away from the outside world can negatively impact education, work opportunities, socialising, every aspect of life, explained U Aung Myint Kyaing, former student of the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf, and now a trainer in deaf school teaching.
Within the deaf community, and potentially stemming from a lack of life experience and confidence outside the confines of the home, deaf women are especially prone to domestic abuse. A lack of friends and connections can create the conditions for easy isolation and victimisation.
33-year-old Daw Thet Thet Mar, deaf since birth, shared her story of domestic abuse, claiming that her husband would drink to excess and come home to beat her. The worst beating came while she was pregnant, and almost led to a dangerous premature birth. Daw Thet Thet Mar hit breaking point, and brought her parents to stage an intervention. Her husband apologised in front of the family, and according to Daw Thet Thet Mar, ceased assaulting her, but he continues to drink and bullies her with harsh words.
The presentation gave some understanding and perspective, she now claims. None the less, Daw Thet Thet Mar’s story is hardly an uncommon one, and her struggle will continue.
Is one day enough? According to U Kyaw Kyaw, the answer is no. It’s his opinion that due to the aforementioned social issues in the deaf community, combined with the mode of communication, lessons in new topics can be tricky and slower than in a normal learning environment. Social difficulties combined with a lack of public and stare support means that not even sign language is taught uniformly, and differences of understanding need to be ironed out in a group setting. According to U Kyaw Kyaw, trainings are limited to one day due to budget constraints.
None the less, the lessons are considered extremely important in making deaf people aware of their personal rights and how to identify if they are being bullied or victimised. Perhaps most importantly of all, the lesson might be that it’s okay to talk about such important issues without feeling shame. It encourages people to reach out and ask for help from friends and organisations.
The works of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women were translated into Myanmar sign language in 2016 and gender awareness training events have been held for the deaf community since. According to 2014 Myanmar census, 4.6 percent of the country’s population live with a disability and among those, 1.3 percent have hearing impairment. Some 670,000 people.
Daw Thet Thet Mar (right), contributes to the GBV event.
Discussing gender based violence.