Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., M.H.S

Modern Day Slavery

The Underrecognized Victims of Trafficking: Deaf Women

Shedding light on why deaf women can be more vulnerable to human trafficking.

Posted Sep 21, 2017

As a “form of modern-day slavery,” 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, 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 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 experience abuse about one and a half times more frequently than those without hearing difficulties. Women with disabilities suffer significantly higher rates of domestic violence and sexual assault 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 was discovered after hundreds of parents posted missing person signs in train stations, where they believed their children were abducted. One report from the United Kingdom found that deaf woman are twice as likely as non-deaf women 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.

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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 are often someone the victim knows, such as a family member, a neighbor, or residents in their home. Vulnerable populations, including those with disabilities, may rely on partners or caregivers for support and may be more susceptible to trafficking and abuse. Perpetrators of these crimes are attracted to these vulnerable groups because they can more easily exploit them for slave labor or even receive government benefits in the victim’s name.  

In fact, for deaf women, one-half of sexual abuse cases happen in the victim’s own home. Deaf women may especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of isolation and communication barriers. By isolating a deaf victim, an “abuser adds a new level of power and control. She is literally unable to speak out.” For several reasons, “Deaf women are largely unaware of where they can go for support and sometimes that what they are experiencing is actually abuse,” says Steve Powell, Chief Executive of Sign Health. Some deaf victims, especially those from impoverished international settings, may only be able to communicate through gestures and drawings while others may not even be able to read and write, adding an additional layer of isolation and vulnerability.

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 and high levels of unemployment. In order to find help and press charges against traffickers, 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. While recovery is difficult for any victim of human trafficking or abuse, studies have found that deaf women suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (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 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, The Human Trafficking Hotline, and Abused Deaf Women’s Advocacy Services (ADWAS) are great places to access resources for deaf victims

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California

About the Author

Mellissa Withers, Ph.D., MHS, is an associate professor at the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. 

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