To help empower members of the Deaf community in the Philippines to start helping other Deaf Filipinos know their HIV status, and thereby – if they tested HIV-positive – access available treatment, care and support, a training on community-based HIV screening was held for Deaf community members in Manila.
The training is actually one in three that will be provided by a project by the Bahaghari Center for Research, Education an Advocacy, Inc. (Bahaghari Center), backed by collaboration between Youth LEAD and Y-PEER (Asia Pacific Center), which eyed to address Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR)needs of Young Key Populations (YKPs) In Asia and the Pacific.
Disney Aguila, who heads the project, and is the concurrent president of Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, is first to admit that “problems regarding access to HIV-related services (particularly in this case) by Deaf Filipinos remain numerous.” This is why, for Aguila, “every effort to immediately help deal with these issues count.”
These challenges are multi-pronged, yet interconnected.
On the side of the Deaf Filipinos:
1) Knowledge about HIV remains low.
In 2012, Michael David C. Tan – publishing editor of Outrage Magazine, the only LGBTQI publication in the Philippines, and head of Bahaghari Center – conducted “Talk to the Hand”, the first-of-its-kind study that looked at the knowledge, attitudes and related practices of Deaf LGBT Filipinos on HIV and AIDS. The study had numerous disturbing findings.
To start, majority of the respondents (33 or 54.1%) were within the 19-24 age range at the time of the study, followed by those who are over 25 (21 or 34.3%).
Most of them (53 of 61 Deaf respondents) had sex before they reached 18, the legal age of consent in the Philippines. Many (36.1%) of them also had numerous sexual partners, with some respondents having as many as 20 sex partners in a month.
Only 21 (34.4%) use condoms, and – worryingly – even among those who used condoms, 12 (19.7%) had condom breakage during sex because of improper use.
Perhaps the unsafe sexual practice should not be surprising, considering that not even half (29, 47.5%) of the respondents heard of HIV and AIDS, with even less that number (23, 37.7%) knowing someone who died of HIV or AIDS-related complications. And with not even half of the total respondents (29) familiar with HIV and AIDS, not surprisingly, only 19 (31.1%) consider HIV and AIDS as serious, with more of them considering HIV and AIDS as not serious (20, 32.8%) or maybe serious (22, 36.1%).
The study also noted that the level of general knowledge about HIV and AIDS is low, with 40 (65.6%) of them falling in this category. Only about 1/5 of them (12, 19.7%) had high level of knowledge about HIV and AIDS. Even fewer (9, 14.8%) may be classified as having moderate knowledge level.
2) Continuing neglect of inclusion of Deaf community members in HIV-related discussions.
For instance, there may have been HIV-related projects including Deaf Filipinos in the past, but these have been very limited to Deaf LGBTQI people.
It is worth noting that this issue is not limited ONLY to the LGBTQIA members of the Deaf community. This issue also affects the SRHR of the Deaf community, as a whole.
For the World Health Organization (WHO), health is a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Specific to reproductive health, WHO stresses that it “implies that people are able to have a responsible, satisfying and safer sex life and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so.”
It is nonetheless unfortunate that various studies – including Tan’s – highlight how the Deaf community continues to be left behind because they are not able to access safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of fertility regulation/s of their choice.
For instance, a study carried out by Deafax (EARS Campaign, 2012) revealed “higher than average levels of STIs, pregnancy and inappropriate behavior within the Deaf community.” This study specifically showed that: 35% of Deaf people did not receive any sex education at school; 65% said that sex education was inaccessible; and 36% learned through direct sexual experience.”
Dealing with SRHR vis-à-vis HIV is obviously just as tricky in the Philippines.
From January 1984 to July 2018, sexual contact among men who have sex with men (MSM) was the predominant (84%, 44,929) mode of transmission among males. Just as that moniker suggests, many of these MSM are not necessarily gay/homosexual, but also engage in sex with opposite sex partners.
This is connected to the population of those most vulnerable to risks associated with sexual activity getting younger, including HIV. But while this has been noted in the Hearing population, the Deaf community is largely ignored, with no existing data on HIV prevalence among them.
In fact, also from January 1984 to July 2018, 16,074 (28%) of the reported cases were 15-24 years old; and broken down, 1,813 were infected through male-female sex, 9,031 from male-male sex, and 4,662 from sex with both males and females.
This means that so long as the HIV infection rate among MSM increases, so do the risk for infection among women.
As it is, the number of diagnosed HIV infections among females in the Philippines has already increased. Females diagnosed with HIV from January to July 2018 (362) was almost three times the number of diagnosed cases compared to the same period of 2013 (126). Ninety-three percent (3,426) of all female cases were in the reproductive age group (15-49 years old) at the time of diagnosis.
With the dearth – if not complete absence – of information for the Deaf community in the Philippines about HIV, Deaf Filipinos (irrespective of their SOGIE) continue not to be informed of and have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of birth control; as well as appropriate health care services of sexual, reproductive medicine and implementation of health education program.
3) Lack of HIV-related materials in Filipino Sign Language (FSL).
According to Aguila, still many people – including service providers – do not know that the Deaf community has its own language (with its own grammar and syntax). And so HIV-related materials are often produced with the assumption that “everyone can already immediately understand them, which is not necessarily true.”
Aguila recommends the development and production of materials specifically targeting the Deaf community to ensure “that the messages being relayed are truly understood,” she said.
Already, Bahaghari Center has released PSAs on the basics of HIV.
On the side of Filipino Sign Language interpreters:
1) There is still a lack of interpreters in the country (particularly in far-flung areas.
2) Also, even among the available interpreters, not many actually know about HIV.
3) There is also the lack of interpreters who can accompany Deaf Filipinos who end up testing HIV-positive when they access treatment, care and support services.
4) And there – currently – are no HIV-related programs being offered to ensure that willing interpreters are also given HIV-related knowledge and skills.
Aguila admitted that “we definitely still have a long way to go; but we do what we can, and starting with one step – such as training Deaf community members to start testing other Deaf Filipinos is but one good step.”
The training in Manila – as well as in Cebu City in the Visayas and Davao City in Mindanao – is provided by The Red Ribbon Project, Inc.
Other supporters of the project include: Outrage Magazine, Fringe Publishing, Pinoy Deaf Rainbow, TransDeaf Philippines, Deaf Dykes United and Pinoy Deaf Queer.