Meet Rehema this International Women's Day

Rehema, UNAD, Uganda, International Women's DayRehema Namarome became deaf in her teens and went on to start up Uganda’s United Deaf Women Organisation (UDEWO) in 2002.  Working with Deaf Child Worldwide, the organisation now empowers 3,000 deaf women and girls. This International Women's Day, Rehema talks about her life as a deaf role model in Uganda and her work as founder and Director of this organisation.

When I was sixteen I fell ill with malaria. The doctors gave me quinine and although this cured my malaria it also caused me to become permanently deaf.  It took me and my parents a long time to come to terms with what had happened but I got back up again, determined to make the most of my life. Many people, including my own step mother sniggered and wondered why I bothered to go back to school, but I persevered and in my early twenties I even received a scholarship to do a Masters in Human Rights.

Losing my hearing at a later age meant I had already developed good speech and a relatively good understanding of the world. Thousands of deaf children in Uganda aren’t as ‘lucky.’ In many families, deaf children are forgotten and this is so much worse for girls, already struggling to be heard and treated as equal.

In my mid-twenties I started a community group where deaf women and men would meet regularly to socialise and talk about the issues we faced being deaf. I soon realised that while the men would talk about their jobs and life outside the group – for the women, this group was all they had. I realised that deaf women were missing out on so much so I set up the United Deaf Women’s Organisation (UDEWO) in 2002. As Executive Director of UDEWO, I’ve been working to support and empower women as I want to see a society where deaf women are treated as equals.
A big challenge facing many deaf women in Uganda is sexual exploitation. There is a high rate of rape among deaf women and the perpetrators aren’t brought to justice. I’ve met many deaf women who have summoned the courage to report rape to the police only to be turned away because the police didn’t know how to manage it.

A lack of communication lies at the heart of this inequality. I recently met with a girl who we’ll call Nancy, a 15 year old in a boarding Secondary School for the Deaf. Nancy was refusing to return to her father’s home at the end of term and I soon learnt that her father had been sexually abusing her for years. After arranging temporary shelter for Nancy, I met with her mother to try to understand why she hadn’t done anything about it, despite Nancy previously opening up to her.
When I asked Nancy’s mother why she wasn’t protecting her daughter from her abusive father, she broke down in tears. She was inconsolable. Even though Nancy had told her mother, she never understood and seemingly ignored it. That’s why providing sign language training to families and communities is a key part of our work. Too often I’ve seen the devastating effects that a lack of communication can have on the lives of both deaf men and women alike. 

At UDEWO we tackle sexual exploitation by empowering women, informing them about their rights. Just because a man forces himself on you or offers you money, it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. With a lack of communication and language skills, it can be hard for deaf women to comprehend what is right and wrong so we provide training and counselling to make more deaf women aware of what constitutes abuse. We’re also raising awareness and providing training to police so they are better able to support deaf women.
Recently, 93 police officers around Uganda graduated in sign language through our project. They’ve even set up a WhatsApp group so that when a deaf girl reports a crime, they will send a trained officer to support the girl. If the police fail to support a deaf woman, we report it to the media to expose the police in question while sending out the message that deaf women can no longer be treated as passive victims.

I’m glad to say I’ve witnessed positive progress in the last few years.  As an educated and successful deaf woman, I enjoy meeting parents and challenging the stereotype that all deaf women are stupid, or kasiru as we are still called in Uganda. I’m living proof that deaf women can go to school and achieve and with more support from organisations like Deaf Child Worldwide, I’m looking forward to being part of a world where women aren’t discriminated against, whether they are deaf or not.

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Deaf Child Worldwide works with partners in developing countries, facilitating work that enables deaf children and young people to be fully included in their family, education and community life.

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