Creating Positive Change for the Deaf in South Sudan

A woman's strife for equality for the deaf in South Sudan.

In South Sudan, life has been tough for those with disabilities. Limited access to schooling and a lack of public knowledge about disabilities have meant years of abuse for those with physical challenges. It was not until 2010 that the deaf and disabled were legally allowed to vote.

In 1992, Atim Caroline Ogwang lost her hearing when she was only five-years-old. "I was a child and was searching for fruit from trees when an explosive left by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels detonated," says Caroline. In that moment, she lost her hearing.

"I was lucky to be away from the explosion, any closer and I would have died," says Caroline. Immediately after the blast, Caroline's world changed. Children running up to her only mouthed their words with no sound coming from them.

Struggling With the Disability

Confused and frustrated by her hearing loss, Caroline's parents tried begging for money to take her to a doctor who could tell them what had happened to their daughter. Coming from a big family, there was little money and no access to health care. 

"When I tried to talk, I could not make the correct sounds," Caroline continues. "I felt frustrated and anger would build up in me. I would throw stones at the other children for making fun of me."

Her mother spoke with several nongovernmental and Christian organizations to find a school that could help their daughter. At the time when Caroline lost her hearing, there were no schools or resources for a deaf person to learn sign language or schooling to teach the hearing impaired. With no comprehension of what was being taught, Caroline failed miserably in public school. She felt depressed and isolated. 

Caroline was eventually sponsored by Christian Children Funds from the United States and a Catholic sponsor from Italy, which helped pay for her school fees. Even as a young teenager, Caroline saw the need for proper schooling for the hearing impaired and deaf in her country.

It was during this time that Caroline was subjected to abuse not only from her peers, but also by police officers. Soon after, unable to deal with the economic pressures of such a large family, her mother committed suicide. Her older brothers did not think Caroline was worth taking care of due to her hearing loss, and she had only one friend who was hearing able.

"One day, when my deaf friends and I were walking down a road, the police stopped us. They thought we were being rude or up to something bad because we could not communicate with them," Caroline continues. " We were put in jail because we were deaf. They thought something was wrong with us."

Creating Positive Change for Others

Caroline's vision of creating opportunities for deaf people never wavered. Among her many achievements, she founded the Southern Sudan Deaf Development Concern (SSDDC). It is the first nonprofit organization in South Sudan to provide sign language training for the deaf and hearing impaired.

The SSDDC provides adult literacy for the deaf community, vocational training, deaf rights advocacy in education, representation in government, and access to information. It also provides assistance for deaf refugees in other countries to find their parents. 

Recently, Caroline was honored by the Women's Refugee Commission for her courage and dedication to women and girls with disabilities. After being awarded with this recognition for her efforts to create positive change for the deaf community in South Sudan, Caroline knows the road to full equality and access to education is still a long way off.

"I do not want young deaf girls to have to sell their bodies for money," Caroline says, "and I don’t want to see any deaf women and girls who accept to sell their body because it will very risky or lead to death. I want them to be educated."

Caroline aspires to get a college education and to become a lawyer, then eventually be the first female member of parliament in Africa with a hearing impairment. With certainity in her voice, Caroline says: "We need to be seen first as women, [and] second as women with disabilities so that we can change laws for the disabled in South Sudan and all of Africa." 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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