The Underrecognized Victims of Trafficking: Deaf Women

Friday, October 6th, 2017

The Underrecognized Victims of Trafficking: Deaf Women

As a “form of modern-day slavery,” (link is external) human trafficking occurs when a person or group uses force or coercion to control unwilling victim(s) for the purposes of commercial sex acts or labor. Over 20 million victims (link is external), including 1.5 million in developed countries, generate billions of dollars in profit for human traffickers each year. Despite these high numbers, human trafficking goes frequently underreported (link is external) and the actual figures are likely much higher. Due to the frequent isolation of victims and their dependency on perpetrators, they often share characteristics—and sometimes overlap—with victims of domestic violence and sexual or psychological abuse.

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking: Perpetrators like to prey on those who may be less inclined to report abuse. Deaf and hard-of-hearing populations (link is external)experience abuse about one and a half times more frequently (link is external)than those without hearing difficulties. Women with disabilities suffer significantly higher rates of domestic violence and sexual assault (link is external) compared to women without disabilities. They also report abuse that is “more intense” and lasts longer.

While the reporting of domestic abuse and human trafficking varies from country to country, this overall global trend of the exploitation of deaf and disabled people is extremely disturbing. Worldwide, hundreds of reports of trafficking of deaf or disabled people have been filed over the past decade. For example, in China in 2007, more than 1,300 people were rescued from forced labor in brick kilns. Most were children and around one-third were disabled. This trafficking ring (link is external) was discovered after hundreds of parents posted missing person signs in train stations, where they believed their children were abducted. One report (link is external) from the United Kingdom found that deaf woman are twice as likely as non-deaf women (link is external)to experience domestic abuse, and in the Philippines, one out of every three deaf women reports having been sexually harassed or raped.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, which was the first federal anti-trafficking legislation in the U.S., was created, in part, as a response to criminal cases involving trafficking victims with disabilities. This included one of the first recognized human trafficking cases in the U.S., which involved a ring in which 55 Mexican nationals who were deaf were trafficked into New York City to beg and sell trinkets on the subway.

Source: Maxpixel

Disabled people in developing countries are often targets for traffickers because of the lack of social services and safety nets and high unemployment rates. In order to survive, they may be forced to work as modern-day slaves in organized begging rings, brothels, or even sweatshops and factories. In many cultures, disabled people are seen as a shame or burden on their families and are therefore more easily recruited by traffickers. Because they can generate more sympathy—and therefore more money—traffickers often target children born with disabilities and disfigurements. In some of the poorest countries, healthy children have been deliberately mutilated and disfigured by traffickers to generate more money.

A common thread among deaf and non-deaf victims of human trafficking and abuse is that their perpetrators are caregivers (link is external) are often someone the victim knows, such as a family member, a neighbor, or residents in their home. Vulnerable populations (link is external), including those with disabilities, may rely on partners or caregivers for support and may be more susceptible to trafficking and abuse (link is external). Perpetrators of these crimes are attracted to these vulnerable groups because they can more easily exploit them for slave labor (link is external)or even receive government benefits in the victim’s name.

For the same reason that deaf women are more likely to become victims of human trafficking, finding freedom, recovery, and justice can be an enormous uphill battle for them. Complex socio-economic conditions, such as negative stereotypes, ignorance, and insensitivity, can cause deaf women to struggle against increased marginalization (link is external)and high levels of unemployment. In order to find help and press charges against traffickers, (link is external) deaf women may experience difficulties in identifying resources and avenues of support. Reading and signing affidavits, understanding legal jargon, and communicating with lawyers and judges becomes an extreme challenge when unable to communicate verbally (link is external). While recovery is difficult for any victim of human trafficking or abuse, studies have found that deaf women suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (link is external)(PTSD) and other associated symptoms find constant challenges to diagnosis and treatment due to communication barriers.

So much can be done to help deaf victims of human trafficking. Through accurate identification of victims and increased data collection (link is external)specifically for deaf victims, organizations can help fund research, support, and awareness to reach this group. Such organizations must ensure that they have an effective way to communicate with deaf victims. PSAs should have subtitles to help reach deaf individuals. Organizations such as DeafHope (link is external), The Human Trafficking Hotline, and Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) (link is external)are great places to access resources for deaf victims (link is external).

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health (link is external) at the University of Southern California

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