“Education of the deaf children is crucial to give them the ability to fulfill their full potential,” said Leona Tamainai. (Photo: UNDP)

In a busy hotel lobby, among the guests and visitors conversing in different languages was Leona Tamainai, who was briefing her colleagues in sign language.  

Leona represents the Fiji Association of the Deaf (FAD) at policy consultations with government to ensure the rights of deaf persons are included.

In the late-1970s, Leona and her friends, who have different disabilities, came together in a small office in Suva, to share the challenges they face and discuss how they could collectively address these challenges. They organized themselves and founded the Fiji Disabled People’s Federation (FDPF). In 2002, FAD was formed as an affiliate of FDPF.

FDPF and FAD advocate for access to justice with other civil society organizations in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji through Fiji Access to Justice Project, which is funded by the European Union (EU).

The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups by empowering people to access their legal rights and justice services, as well as strengthening those key justice institutions and civil society to deliver improved services.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide. The Fiji 2017 Census results showed that 13.7 percent of population aged three and above reported at least one functional challenge (disability), but there is no data on how many people use or need sign language.

Fiji has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which recognizes and promotes the use of sign language. However, more steps need to be taken for recognition of the importance and systematic inclusion of sign language at an institutional level, and to raise the awareness of people of the rights and needs of deaf people and deaf culture.

Leona highlighted the importance of recognizing ‘deaf diversity’. The deaf culture is diverse, based on different identities, genders, ages and other social, economic and cultural backgrounds. Deaf individuals face different and compound challenges due to their marginalization in various strata of society.

Furthermore, deaf women experience specific challenges.

“At an institutional level, it is difficult for deaf women to report complaints to the police and seek adequate legal services and remedies in a timely and appropriate manner in case of emergency and particularly when they face crimes such as domestic violence. In hospital, particularly during pregnancy and child birth, women sign language interpreters have to be provided but are not always available.” 

“Due to a lack of awareness and misunderstanding among people, deaf women are often considered incapable of bringing up their own children. In some cases, relatives or the husband’s family take babies away from deaf women wrongly thinking deaf woman are unable to feed and educate their children.”

Based on the experience faced by deaf women, Leona thinks education of children, both deaf children and children of deaf adults (CODA) is crucial to bring about change in society. 

“Deaf children must be educated in a way that promotes each identity and gives them the ability to fulfill their full potential so that they can respect themselves and become independent people pursuing their dreams. CODA, different from deaf children, live in two cultures, hearing and deaf. While it is important to nurture their role in bridging the two cultures as sign language interpreters, their rights as children have to be protected.”

Aside from engaging in rights and policy advocacy, Leona has sign language classes to teach and is also studying towards a Diploma in Early Childhood Education at University, and plans to successfully graduate next year. At home, she is a mother of two and a grandmother of two, all living under one roof.

“My day usually starts with preparing breakfast for my family and sending my son to school before going off to university myself. My husband cooks too. I encourage him to cook for us and I always compliment him…. ‘the food you prepared is so delicious!’”

Leona and FAD colleagues are currently coordinating a week-long campaign in Fiji, as part of the International Week of the Deaf, which kicked off by commemorating the International Day of Sign Language (IDSL) on 23 September. The overarching theme for IDSL 2019 is ‘Sign Language Rights for All!

UNDP, and its partners through the Fiji Access to Justice Project, supports the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals, with particular focus on Goal 16, which is the commitment to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, and Goal 5, to achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.

For more information:

Tomoko Kashiwazaki, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, tel: +679 942 2193, email: tomoko.kashiwazaki@undp.org

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