Rape and divorce are high among those who are hearing impaired in Sri Lanka.
Those who are hearing and speech impaired are far more vulnerable to sexual assault because of their condition. This vulnerability is intensified further by the lack of comprehensive reproductive health education which has left them clueless about inappropriate sexual advances and about how to be intimate with their spouse.
Finally, a solution is here! A sign language glossary is currently being compiled that will have up to 250 gestures, covering topics related to reproductive health, sexual assault, homosexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases.
The project that is almost complete, is being arduously worked on by a dedicated team of 13 since June this year. The team consists of hearing and speech impaired individuals, teachers and professionals from the Department of Social Services, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Sri Lankan Central Federation for the Deaf, National Institute of Education (NIE), School for Deaf, and young leaders from Y-PEER Sri Lanka.
Why teaching reproductive health in sign language is awkward
We met Christopher Delmar, who has 35 years of experience in teaching at the School for Deaf in Ratmalana. He is part of the team currently working on the glossary.
Describing why the glossary is essential, he says: “I’m a 55 year old teacher; I can’t teach female students sex education using crude, explicit gestures. If teachers could show them the book and teach them the signs first, then we can teach them very well”.
This comedic, albeit sadly telling video aptly demonstrates what Christopher describes.
Glossary to help rape victims
There is no universal sign language. Each country has adapted and developed its own lexicon of sign language in order to communicate in a way that is culturally acceptable and simple to master.
For Sri Lankan sign language, there have been very limited gestures so far to express sexual and reproductive health terms.
In most cases people create their own. While this may be sufficient for communicating at home or among friends, it would not be so in formal situations. For example, if they find themselves in a courtroom after having been sexually assaulted or harassed, interpreters may not be able to understand what they are trying to say. That, in turn, can cost them their court case.
Christopher elaborates this saying “because of the lack of signs, victims have little choice but to act out what was done to them in a courtroom filled with strangers. This makes them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, and they are reluctant to do so”.
This is why standardization of comprehensive reproductive health education is essential in Sri Lanka.
Christopher explains, “Reproductive health education was not available for the hearing impaired individuals because they did not have sign language for it. For example, previously there were no signs for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. We are now including all of this in the new glossary. The students would have most definitely attended the lessons if they were available to them”.
Reproductive health education for the hearing impaired
According to Christopher, there are roughly 400,000 to 500,000 hearing impaired individuals in Sri Lanka. Around 60 to 70% of them live in rural areas where they have limited access to learning the national, standardized sign language.
The NIE and the Department of Social Services provides courses in sign language for police officers and government officers. But not much can be done for those who live in rural areas and are unaware of the standard sign language when trying to communicate with the authorities.
Interestingly though, the glossary that is being developed opens up a gateway for comprehensive reproductive health education for the hearing impaired community. The subject remains taboo in many public and private schools in the island. As we’ve written about before, in Sri Lanka we don’t talk about sex.