Sign language barrier: Deaf SGBV victims struggle to access police services

A man walks towards the Gender desk office at the Bungoma Police Station on November 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Kamau Maichuhie I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • An April 22, 2023 article by UN Women indicated that about 50 per cent of the police stations in Kenya have gender desks. 
  • Data on the total number of police stations is elusive, but in 2021, the National Police Service wrote that 702 new police stations had been established in 2019.

Recently, we published a story of a deaf woman in Kisumu who was raped but gave up on reporting the abuse as officers at the police station she visited could not understand what she was communicating.

Her case is a reflection of the barrier that the deaf women and men in Kenya face in seeking justice, especially for violations related to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

Last year, we visited some police stations in seven counties, namely Nairobi, Kiambu, Uasin Gishu, Baringo, Homa Bay, Bungoma and Turkana, to establish whether they have gender desks, and how they operate.

None of the desks had officers trained in sign language. Neither did they have any officer, trained or otherwise, at their customer care desk.

There are no official figures of gender desks in Kenya. However, an April 22, 2023 article by UN Women indicated that about 50 per cent of the police stations in Kenya have gender desks. 

Similarly, data on the total number of police stations is elusive, but in 2021, the National Police Service (NPS) wrote in its annual report that 702 new police stations had been established in 2019.

Because Dr Resila Onyango, the NPS spokesperson, had not responded to our queries by press time, we cannot, therefore, tell whether there is any official deployment at any of the gender desks or police stations in the country to attend to deaf SGBV victims.

Nevertheless, a police officer who has trained in sign language, says she self-sponsored for the upskilling after she witnessed the suffering of many deaf victims who were turned away because the officers would not understand them.

“Their experiences tortured my consciousness. I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I enrolled for the course in Nairobi and it wasn’t paid for by NPS,” says the officer.

We protect the identity of the officer for they are not permitted to speak to the media about the operations of the service.

But for the deaf, and rights groups, training and deploying the police officers should be a matter of urgency to save them from unreported injustices.

“I know a deaf woman who was referred to me when she was told I know sign language that she gave up reporting a rape incident against her because the police officers at the station she visited kept sending her away. They could not understand each other and they never had the patience to find someone who would interpret what she was communicating,” the officer says.

Nina Masore, a programme officer for end sexual violence campaign at Equality Now, says it is not enough to have laws that protect either gender, including those with disabilities, from sexual violence. 

Their existence ought to be felt through serving justice to the violated, she reiterates.

“Laws must be enforced to serve all,” she says.

She says it is the government’s responsibility to provide necessary infrastructure, facilitating persons with disabilities to report abuse.

“They have a right to be protected and to seek justice,” she emphasises.

Reporting abuse to police is the beginning of justice as they are the ones who conduct investigations, arrest perpetrators and present them to court for prosecution.

To bridge the gap, some non-state institutions with staff trained in sign language are offering pro-bono services of accompanying the violated deaf women and men to the police stations. However, their support is unsustainable as they depend on donor funding to keep going.

Sharon Amendi, policy and gender justice lead at Kisumu Medical and Education Trust, says there is an urgent need to have inclusive strategies to ending SGBV.

“We are leaving the deaf behind if they cannot walk to a police station and report an abuse without feeling ashamed, unheard and victimised,” she notes.

Communication barriers

She says due to communication barriers, the deaf in Kisumu are unaware of their rights, a gap they are bridging through training in partnership with other organisations.

Lydia Digo, founder of Elite Deaf, a community-based organisation advocating the rights of the deaf in Kisumu East, calls for training of all police officers in sign language.

“Trust is important when handling the deaf. They must trust you enough to share with you whatever is troubling them. That applies to police officers and nurses or doctors,” she says.

“Let’s prioritise the rights of the deaf in delivery of all services. They are equal human beings.”