John Paul Maunes is bringing to light the issue of sexual abuse among the Deaf community in the Philippines and using it to mobilize stakeholders across the law enforcement and social welfare spheres to institute new inclusive measures for the broader inclusion of the Deaf.
The New Idea
John Paul Maunes, called “JP”, is building a Deaf-inclusive society. By addressing the rampant yet ignored problem of sexual abuse among Deaf children and women, JP has chosen to work with the most vulnerable of the Deaf community and use this work as a mobilizing force in engaging lawyers, police officers, and other volunteers, as well as in raising broader public awareness about the multiple barriers facing the Deaf. By training and engaging Deaf and hearing volunteers through Gualandi Volunteer Service Programme (GVSP) Philippines, JP is providing multiple platforms where the Deaf and the hearing interact with one another - interactions that JP believes are key for the hearing community to see Deaf community members as valued members of society.
JP’s Break the Silence Project (BTS) launched in 2011 is GVSP’s flagship initiative to uncover and expose the widely ignored tragedy of sexual abuse against Deaf children and women in the Philippines, which, according to the Deaf Resource Center affects approximately 70% of that group. In partnership with other nonprofit organizations, government agencies, private groups, and other relevant institutions, GVSP is educating the hearing and Deaf community about the issue not only to detect and help prevent further cases but to develop a system to address the abuse. JP’s approach uses animated films adapted from a leading children’s organization with inset Filipino Sign Language (FSL) for Deaf children, trained Deaf counselors, and a 24/7 hotline to detect and channel more advanced psychological support to sexually abused Deaf individuals. He then establishes paralegal and court interpreting services to help cases be brought to light and justice, as well as workshops and trainings for government agencies that serve the Deaf. In doing so, GVSP is not only addressing the issue of sexual abuse among the Deaf but inserting the needs of the Deaf community into the law enforcement, justice and social welfare systems.
The BTS Project has expanded to become BTS Networks across the Philippines. BTS networks are comprised of Deaf and hearing professionals: lawyers, police officers, paralegals, interpreters, and other Deaf and hearing volunteers, who are committed to helping the Deaf community have fair access to justice. GVSP’s work for the BTS Project has given the issues faced by the Deaf community proper attention and urgency while building momentum around broader questions of inclusion. JP is using this greater interest and understanding to also achieve policy changes related to the official recognition of Filipino Sign Language(FSL) and nationwide interpreting services on televised news as a pathway for mainstream inclusion of the Deaf community.
In the Philippines, the needs and issues of persons with disabilities, including the Deaf, remain invisible to the broader population and largely unaddressed. While there are no official statistics or studies on the literacy rate among members of the Deaf community, the World Federation of the Deaf estimates that 80% of the total Deaf population in the world does not have access to education, and that only 1-2% of the Deaf get education in sign language. With the immense barrier to communication and the lack of institutional support to address this deficiency in the Philippines, other graver issues concerning the Deaf community have surfaced. A report by Lisa Martinez, PhD, founder of The Philippine Deaf Resource Center, cites several studies that show the high incidence of sexual abuse among Deaf women and minors in the Philippines. One such statistic reports that 72% of Deaf women in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao are sexually abused or battered, with 63% abused by their own fathers. Another report cites approximately half of referrals of sexual abuse from 1996-2006 that were handled by a Counseling Ministry for the Deaf being cases of incest. Yet another reports one out of three Deaf women being victims of rape, and a 65-70% incidence of molestation among Deaf minors. There have also been reports of sexual abuse and molestation occurring in some Deaf residential schools, with teachers perpetuating the crime and administrators covering up for them.
Although the lack of uniform and systematized data collection prevents a truly accurate picture of the problem, cases of sexual abuse among Deaf women and children are slowly surfacing and are being acknowledged through the leadership and scholarship of Deaf, Women, and Children advocates. However, it is one thing to know and acknowledge that such abuses are happening, and another thing to have a system that is equipped to handle such cases effectively and efficiently. Studies show that Deaf victims have had little to no access to the legal or judicial systems in the Philippines. Even for programs by established organizations such as the Counseling Ministry for the Deaf, cases filed in court are mostly either dismissed or archived, mainly due to the language barrier - caused by the lack of interpreters in the country. There are no policies that set standards for interpreting in court proceedings involving the Deaf. As Martinez states, "The lack of awareness...has resulted in a dismal absence of policy, i.e., of a nationally mandated system for interpreting…and standards to govern selection of interpreters for court proceedings, and the quality of their interpreting during these proceedings." This is a symptom of a general lack of support for Deaf persons.
Aggravating the lack of interpreter systems is the failure of the Philippines government to recognize Filipino Sign Language (FSL) of the Deaf, choosing instead Signing Exact English (SEE) which many advocates argue is not its own language, nor the mother tongue of Deaf Filipinos.
To specifically address the problem of sexual abuse among Deaf women and children in the Philippines, JP, in partnership with the children’s advocacy organization Stairway Foundation, Inc. (SFI), started the Break The Silence (BTS) Project. Working closely with Deaf volunteers who have their own stories of sexual abuse and exploitation, JP is empowering members of the Deaf community to detect, support and prevent other such cases. Through engaging several stakeholders, agencies, schools, parents, and community members, GVSP is educating and empowering the Deaf community, especially Deaf children themselves, to fight against Deaf child sexual abuse.
GVSP uses animated films - produced by SFI and further developed by GVSP to cater to Deaf children - to teach Deaf children what sexual abuse is and what they should do when they find themselves in compromising situations. The workshop lasts three days and involves trained Deaf GVSP volunteers to help children understand their rights and in a developmentally appropriate way how to recognize cases of sexual abuse. The workshops further teach the kids how to say no assertively and how and where to report incidents of sexual abuse. It is during the session that children usually disclose their own experiences of abuse, and GVSP then provides counseling and helps file cases in court through their volunteers.
Through the BTS project, GVSP also builds BTS networks all over the Philippines. BTS networks are currently active in Cebu, Bohol, Dumaguete, Davao, and Manila. GVSP and its BTS networks help courts handle cases involving Deaf persons by training Deaf paralegals, Deaf court sign language interpreters, and helping with case monitoring and handling.
GVSP has also worked to establish police "Deaf desks" through their Information and Police Access for the Deaf (IPAD) Project. The number of reported cases from the Deaf community has increased since the launch of the IPAD Project. GVSP has partnered with the Philippine National Police in Region VII to pilot the IPAD Project. JP and his team have trained almost a hundred police officers in basic Filipino Sign Language and Deaf Culture Awareness. The police officers that GVSP trains are the ones handling women's and children's cases in their departments. Through the IPAD Project, GVSP hopes to equip police officers with the skills they need to properly handle cases involving the Deaf (not limited to victims of sexual abuse).
Aside from directly teaching Deaf children about sexual abuse and how to protect themselves, and beyond handling and monitoring cases in court, GVSP also collaborates with different organizations, groups, and sectors by conducting their Deaf Culture Awareness and Basic FSL Workshop, which also highlights the problem of sexual abuse among Deaf women and children. This workshop is led by the Deaf volunteers of GVSP with JP and other hearing interpreters serving as the voice-over for the non-signing and hearing participants. This is a deliberate and conscious step in making the Deaf be the leaders of their own initiatives. While hearing lawyers are still very much involved in training the volunteers of GVSP to be paralegals, it is JP's vision to have their trained Deaf paralegals train their fellow Deaf volunteers in the future.
Beyond his work with the BTS Project, JP has also worked with the local major network in Cebu in incorporating Filipino Sign Language (FSL) in their news programs. Before GVSP, the Deaf community in Cebu and elsewhere in the nation did not have access to local news programming due to the lack of sign language interpreting for news programs. Major networks across the nation, with GVSP's advocacy and help, eventually included FSL interpreting in their news programs. After being recognized by the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations (TAYO) Awards Foundation (an organization that recognizes and supports youth organizations in the Philippines) for their FSL news interpreting project and the BTS project, a Philippine senator offered to sponsor two bills - one to make FSL an official language and another one for news interpreting to be required in news programs. From cold-calling a local news network to include FSL news interpreting to having two bills currently in their 1st reading in Congress, GVSP has come a long way in helping make a Deaf-inclusive Philippines.
Growing up, JP was raised by his mother who was a physician and a person with disability herself; she was very passionate and active in community service and in campaigning for equal rights and opportunities in health care for marginalized members of rural communities. As a child, JP lived with his uncle who suffered from mental illness and witnessed how his family provided a caring environment; this made him understand and recognize the value of a non-discriminating and nurturing environment for persons with special needs.
JP recalls one of his cousins who would visit in the summer. JP would play with his cousin but was frustrated that he could never communicate effectively with him because he was Deaf. Some years later in high school, JP was introduced to the Deaf community by Peter Paul who was to become his best friend. JP wasn't even initially aware that Peter Paul was Deaf when they first met and started playing basketball. JP thought that his new friend may just be quiet. Remembering the exclusion of his cousin, JP made a greater effort to communicate with Peter Paul and found that he could relatively quickly pick up signing. Peter Paul introduced JP to the Deaf community, and a whole new world of signing and Deaf culture opened up for him. When JP suffered a debilitating health condition still in high school that prevented him from engaging in sports and other strenuous activities, Peter Paul helped him through it. He started talking about the Deaf community with his high school peers, and although his hearing friends did not quite understand his involvement with the Deaf community, JP continued immersing himself in the Deaf culture.
While in college studying nursing, JP realized how few hearing people like him knew how to sign and began to form, through a volunteer organization he worked with, a program to train and provide Filipino Sign Language interpreters to different agencies and organizations needing them. It was through this effort that JP co-founded GVSP Philippines in 2005 to foster volunteer interpreting services as well as advocates for broader Deaf inclusion issues. Through the increasing requests to GVSP from police stations, hospitals and courts, JP realized that his volunteer service could not, and should not meet the demand of the whole Deaf community and it would be critical to address the issues within the agencies themselves.
As a registered nurse, JP spent years balancing his volunteer work with the Deaf community first with his studies and then profession. When he left the nursing profession to dedicate himself full-time to GVSP, his family at first was not supportive of him giving up a lucrative career and an opportunity to work abroad like so many of his compatriots. However, overtime, they came to support him and even volunteer with GVSP. When his best friend Paul Paul died in an accident, JP's commitment to the Deaf community only strengthened more.
JP dreams of many things for the Deaf community. He wishes to someday establish a center for abused Deaf women and children, as well as a training institute for sign language interpreters. JP envisions a Philippines where sign language is readily accessible everywhere and where sign language interpreting is a recognized profession, something one could study for in college and a field with a professional career track. He believes that it is critical to address the language barrier between the Deaf and the hearing worlds. The issues of the Deaf community - lack of access to quality education, health care, sexual abuse, and others are shrouded in silence, and JP, through GVSP's initiatives, is determined to break this silence and let the Deaf community thrive on their own merit.