Signing for Justice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

September 2017

Access to justice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is challenging, particularly for deaf women, because of communication barriers and systematic prejudices held by the judiciary against persons with disabilities. Isabelle*, a deaf woman, is a victim of rape, like many other women and girls in DRC, who then became pregnant and carried to term. Her case caught the attention of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) staff in DRC, when 14 years later, her child was burned alive with gasoline by her rapist, but he was never apprehended by police. Isabelle’s case is an example of how people with disabilities in DRC suffer because of inadequate access to justice.

ABA ROLI staff in Goma, DRC learn sign language with the two interns from "Action Femme Sourde" (AFS), an advocacy group in DRC for deaf women.

Staff in Goma, DRC, learn sign language with ABA ROLI's two interns from "Action Femme Sourde" (AFS), an advocacy group in DRC for deaf women.

In its efforts to provide legal and psychological support to Isabelle and other disabled victims of injustice, ABA ROLI began partnering with "Action Femme Sourde" (AFS) in March 2017 and began to understand the problems faced by deaf women. AFS is an advocacy group in DRC for deaf women, to help them become more active in their communities. ABA ROLI felt that beyond case intervention, education and an increased legal awareness for AFS members was the best way to help them defend their rights and facilitate access to justice. By training two ABA ROLI interns from AFS — including the president of the organization, Nadine Pendeza — on legal assistance, access to justice and best practice of organizational management, ABA ROLI and AFS are working together to end discrimination and injustice against persons with disabilities in the DRC justice system.

In this effort, ABA ROLI team members felt it necessary to learn sign language to avoid another form of exclusion in the workplace between the deaf and interlocutors. “Langue des Signes Français” (French Sign Language) courses are now held at the ABA ROLI office in Goma, two times a week for staff and the AFS interns. To date, all ABA ROLI staff members have a good understanding of the basics of sign language to communicate effectively with the deaf.

In addition to communicating with the interns, learning sign language has become a means of personal development for ABA ROLI staff, a source of pride and a harmonious exchange that has brought ABA ROLI staff and the women of AFS closer together. Through this continued partnership, ABA ROLI will be able to reach more marginalized groups and victims who cannot communicate through word of mouth, but rather speak with their hands.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual

To learn more about our work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org

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