Finding quality sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) services can be difficult for any teenager, but for deaf adolescents, it can be nearly impossible. VSO, who works to ensure quality health and well-being for all adolescents and youth in Rwanda, supports deaf adolescents in accessing SRHR education and care. Sintha Chiumia, VSO’s Regional Media and Communications Officer sat with VSO Rwanda volunteer Brown Niyonsaba to learn more.
VSO: Tell us about yourself and your work with VSO Rwanda
Brown Niyonsaba: I am 35 years old. I live in Kigali, Rwanda, and I am deaf.
While I was born hearing, I got sick with meningitis after one year and became deaf; my sister is also deaf. After starting at a “normal” school, I eventually moved to a specialized school for deaf children. I am proud to have graduated from Adventist University of Central Africa.
As a young person living in Rwanda, I noticed that many deaf women and girls in my community do not have SRHR education. Some are single mothers. Every person should have access to the SRHR services they need, no matter their abilities, and I feel quite privileged to volunteer with VSO Rwanda and help my peers access SRH information and services through a project called Imbere Heza (Bright Futures).
VSO: What were the barriers to accessing SRH care and education for the deaf community?
BN: Many deaf people do not have national identity cards and Community Based Health Insurance (mutuelle de sante), so they are not able to access health services in Rwanda. For those who can, communication is a major barrier between deaf people and healthcare professionals. Most healthcare professionals in Rwanda do not know sign language. When deaf people go to a health centre, they need a sign language translator to help explain why they are there and the services they need. As deaf people, we did not have the privacy that many need when accessing SRHR services.
It is also rare to find translators at health centers; as a result, health workers have to guess instead of interpreting exactly what a deaf patient needs. Without a translator, health providers are also unable to inform deaf patients about the different SRHR services and adequately support them in their family planning goals.
With these challenges, out of frustration, some deaf people stop going to health centres entirely.
Without sign language, parents and families also don’t know how to share SRHR information with deaf adolescents and youth. This leads to feelings of discrimination among deaf youth and limits their access to critical SRHR information and care.
VSO: What drew you to the Imbere Heza project, and how are you expanding SRHR access for people who are deaf?
BN: All people with disabilities should have quality SRHR education and care. As a deaf person, I live the challenges of navigating health systems that are built for the hearing community. That’s why I chose to volunteer for VSO’s Imbere Heza, a project expanding SRH access for people who are deaf – like myself.
I work in the Nyagatare District in Rwanda’s Eastern province, where 5.3 percent of people live with disabilities. Under the project, I and other volunteers help young people and adolescents to understand SRHR, including family planning issues. We train nurses, midwives, community health workers, receptionists, deaf peers, and other national volunteers on Rwandan sign language. We also train them on how to interact with and support deaf youth.
As volunteers, we support healthcare workers to understand the SRHR issues faced by deaf youth, and we support deaf peer educators to deliver SRHR sessions within their communities. To support deaf youth at home, we train parents and families on sign language so they can communicate easily.
VSO: What has the project achieved? What changes have you seen among young people who are deaf, and the health workers who serve them?
BN: I started volunteering in December 2017. Together with other national volunteers, we have trained 87 nurses, 50 deaf peer educators, and 700 community health workers. The people I have mentored have reached more than 1,100 deaf adolescents and youth. Through our community mobilization efforts, we have reached over 16,000 young people through small and one on one outreach sessions.
Since I and other VSO volunteers started working, we have noticed that there is awareness among health workers, government leaders, families of the deaf, and community members. When we train deaf youth on their SRHR, they are no longer afraid; they go to health centres with more confidence. Some deaf people now have IDs and insurance. They can access family planning services and can communicate their needs to health professionals.
Community Health Workers can give deaf youth SRH information and nurses we have trained can communicate using sign language. Receptionists welcome deaf people in the health centers and deaf people feel more confident in the quality of family planning services they receive.
Our work has led to an increase in SRHR knowledge and uptake of related services, in particular, there has been increase in information about reproductive health and contraceptive choice and improved uptake of modern contraceptive methods.
VSO: Your work to date has catalyzed tremendous impact. What do you hope to achieve five years from now?
BN: My desire is to train more people through the Imbere Heza project. Those trained should use the knowledge to help train others and pay it forward. I want to help all deaf people access the SRH care they need and make health systems more accommodating of those with disabilities.
* * * * *
This article is a part of PSI’s ICFP 2022 Impact Magazine. Explore the magazine here.