Language is life

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Image: Kwemal, 55, from Vanuatu works as a tailor from home
Imagine what your life would be like if you didn’t have a language. Without a recognised form of communication, would you still have gone to school? Would you have a job? What about interacting with your family, friends and community – would that be possible without words?

Language is a basic human right, but for many deaf people in developing countries, this right goes unfulfilled. Sign language is unique to each country – just as spoken languages are. Languages not only enable us to communicate with the world around us; they form part of our identity. 

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognises that sign languages are equal in status to spoken languages and should be respected. Yet in some parts of the world, no formal sign language exists. Vanuatu is one of them.
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Maina, 24, from Vanuatu
Harriette, 48, Kwemal, 55, and her daughter, Maina, 24, are from Vanuatu. They are strong, determined women, and they are deaf. The three women share a common link beyond their experience of deafness. Harriette, Kwemal, nor Maina have completed school – and not for lack of trying.

Of the 70 million deaf people around the world, 56 million – or 80 per cent – receive no education. This rate is higher for deaf people living in developing countries, or for deaf women and girls.

Without a formal sign language, the women each use a variation of basic home sign (gestures that can be understood by family members) and lip-reading to communicate. At their schools, there were no sign language interpreters or extra teaching assistance provided. This made full participation at school, and achieving their fundamental human right to education, impossible.

With no sign language or interpretation and no extra teaching assistance available to them, Harriette, Kwemal and Maina had all stopped their education by primary school. Maina left school in just grade one; the opportunity to equally participate and advance her education was never available to her.

“I really want to go back to school. If there was an interpreter, I’d be happy to go back to school”, says Maina.

Without education, it makes securing formal employment far more difficult. Maina has only held one job. She worked for four months at a retail store, but experienced harassment in the workplace. She quit her job and hasn’t wanted to return to work since.
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Harriette, 48, from Vanuatu holding a bag she has woven
Her mother, Kwemal, has always had a job despite her incomplete education. She and now runs her own successful tailoring business.

“I’ve had the chance to work in five shops, so I have overcome the barriers,” says Kwemal.
From a young age, Harriette has been a babysitter to earn an income. She also weaves bags, owns and runs a kava bar, and grows food for herself and her family.

She currently lives with her sister, but is saving money to build her own house. From the money she earns, she has purchased almost all of the material needed for her home – land, wood, cement, and is now saving for the roof.

“I am strong. I earn a living. I will build my own house,” says Harriette.

Harriette’s dream of owning and living in her own home is about to come true, but unfortunately for Maina, her dream of being provided an interpreter to return to school is much further away.

A life without language is one without equal opportunities. Sign language, just like spoken language, is essential and must be recognised, promoted and used, so deaf people can enjoy the same human rights as everyone else.

Just imagine then, how much communities would have to gain when deaf women – like Harriette, Kwemal and Maina – have equal opportunities to achieve their full potential.


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