An Interview With Our 2013 Voices of Courage Honoree Atim Caroline Ogwang

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Atim Caroline for webBorn in what is now South Sudan, Atim Caroline Ogwang lost her hearing when she was five when explosives left by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels detonated when she was picking fruit. She is currently human rights, sign language and gender officer of a nonprofit organization called the Southern Sudan Deaf Development Concern (SSDDC). At SSDDC, Atim Caroline promotes and advocates for deaf girls’ education, organizes deaf women to work towards self-reliance and capacity-building and calls for the full inclusion and participation of women with disabilities in international development programs. Among Atim Caroline’s many talents, she advocates through a performance art called deaf story telling with music.

Where were you born? Tell us about your family.

Soon after I was born in South Sudan, my family became refugees in Uganda. There are eight children in our family – three girls and five boys. I am number seven. I lost both of my parents in the war by the time I turned 10 years old. I was left in the care of my teenage sisters and brothers, all trying to survive in a very harsh environment.

What was your childhood like?

Everything about my childhood seemed normal, just as others normalize poverty, human rights abuses, neglect and oppression. Abductions in the refugee camp were normal. Losing family members was normal. Sleeping on the floor was normal. Waking up hungry and seeing if your neighbors could give you something to eat was normal. I did not even realize I was from South Sudan until I was in primary school and we were divided into Sudanese refugees and Ugandan IDPs [internally displaced people].

How did you become deaf? Were you treated differently growing up because you were deaf? If so, how?

When I was 5 years old, I had gone with some other children to look for fruit in the wild – hunger and idle time led children to do anything to find something to eat. I survived an explosion of ammunition that had been abandoned by the Lord’s Resistance Army under a mango tree. I was not physically injured, but the trauma stayed with me for weeks. I could not speak or hear. I had pain and bleeding in my ears, but no medication was provided to save my ears. Becoming deaf brought a halt to my education for two years until a church supported me to join a deaf school. Unfortunately, everyone thought educating the deaf was a waste of time and resources.

What are some of the challenges women and girls who are deaf or have other disabilities face in South Sudan?

Women and girls with disabilities face many challenges, including lack of information and education, no sign language interpretation services, and even parental neglect. Many girls with disabilities get pregnant outside of marriage and live with their parents. Most deaf girls and women have not completed secondary school education. More than 80 percent have jobs such as cleaning offices and doing washing or domestic chores. Girls who are blind suffer stress walking to school because of the traffic on the roads. In addition, there is a lack of services such as computer technology for the blind.

Why did you found the Southern Sudan Death Development Concern (SSDDC)? Tell us about your NGO.

We founded the SSDDC NGO because we were not happy with the National Sudanese Deaf Association – they never developed sign language for the deaf in Southern Sudan. Our NGO provides sign language training, adult literacy in the deaf community, vocational training, deaf rights advocacy in education, representation in government and access to information. We also try to help deaf refugees in other countries to find their parents. We coordinate these activities with War Disabled, Widows, and Orphans Commission and the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare.

Tell us about your job at SSDDC.

Before my current job, I was an advocate for deaf education in Pariliament. I worked to get sign language, human rights for deaf children and deaf literacy education issue included in the South Sudan Constitution. Now, I am the Human Rights, Sign Language and Gender Officer. I advocate for deaf girls' education, organize deaf women to work towards self-reliance and share ideas about the right of inclusion and participation of women with disabilities in international development programs. Today there are many women's organizations that include women with disabilities in their agenda. It is challenging, but they respect me because I believe in myself and advocate without fear.

Your work is rights-based and focused on inclusion. Why is this important for women and girls with disabilities?

It is important to include women and girls with disabilities because even with affirmative action there is a tendency to forget the needs of women with disabilities. They cannot compete in the normal job market, and this causes discrimination. The poorest of the poor are women with disabilities. The least educated are women with disabilities. When girls get scholarships, those with disabilities are not considered. Support for women to become self-reliant exists but programs do not consider women with disabilities. This is what needs correction.

What advice would you give women and girls who are deaf or have other disabilities?

My advice for women and girls with hearing impairments is to stand up for your rights. If it doesn't happen for us now, we need to fight for the generation that comes after us. We need to establish the foundation so that women and girls will be seen as people first and second as a person with a disability. Get an education if you have the chance. Help our leaders see that we are interested in studying and encourage young girls to go to school. No one wants to be discriminated against.

What is life like in South Sudan now that it is an independent nation?

Most important, we are now free. What is missing is the belief in the capacity of persons with disabilities and women with disabilities. Because war is possible again, there is a lack of services. NGOs have programs and activities for regular people, but not for those with disabilities to become self-reliant or start businesses of their own. There is a high illiteracy level among persons with disabilities because of the war.

What role do you believe women and girls should have in South Sudan's future?

Women and girls are central to the development of South Sudan. They should be able to compete for jobs, set up their own businesses and have families. Women and girls with disabilities should even teach normal people and become caretakers of the people who now take care of them.

What are your goals for the future?

My goal is to become a lawyer and to use my education to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities across the African continent. I want to lead by example to show others that having a disability does not end your life. I believe I will be the first female Member of Parliament in Africa with a hearing impairment