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Beata Shihepo: a challenge to women; From a village called Omududu, in Ukwanyama, Ovamboland, has emerged a woman of such substance that it was a privilege to speak to her about her life.

Beata Shihepo is the Deaf Women Co-ordinator in Namibia. She is also deaf.

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The illness that led to her condition started when she was six years old. She lost her hearing slowly, and became totally deaf by the age of 12. In 1976, she went to the school for the deaf at Eluwa in Oshakati.

"For the first time, I met many deaf people. I started learning how to sign but it was difficult to develop myself because there was no English, only Oshiwambo," said Shihepo. She spoke to us through an interpreter, and if only in that small way, we got a sense of the huge challenge she faces every day as a deaf person to communicate in a world where the majority rule, and the majority are the people who can hear and speak.

At Eluwa, she was taught needle-work and crafts. In 1986 she went to the Rossing Foundation for a tailoring course. Then a year later, she went back to Eluwa where she started working for the government as a hostel matron. At that time, she could only speak Oshiwambo.

"I fought for my own development. Deaf people meet a lot of challenges. When people meet us, they do not know how to approach us. In Oshiwambo, they call us 'pulupulus'. Many people told my mother ... 'Your daughter will not go anywhere, she can only be a babysitter.' But my mother loved me, she refused to listen to those who said deaf people could only be domestic workers and caretakers.

"Many people hide their deaf children, not wanting them to socialise. They think the deafness is a punishment from God ... It is not true. When I was at school, I noticed that parents dropped their deaf children at the gate, while hearing children were dropped in school. It seems parents find it very difficult to accept that their child is deaf. It is no wonder that most people who have hearing are more advanced and they receive more care than the deaf," said Shihepo.

After many years at Eluwa, Shihepo met the director of the Namibian National Association of the Deaf, who advised her that in spite of her disability she could still achieve a lot in life.

"I realised deaf people could do a lot of things. They could be good in English. I came to work for the Association where I learnt much and developed my English vocabulary. I have met many deaf people from other countries," Shihepo said.

This woman, who has overcome so many challenges in life, reminded Namibian women that deaf women suffer the same experiences that all other women in Namibia face.

"Men take advantage of women with disabilities. It is hard for us to speak out because most of us are not educated, and we lack information on our rights. As a result we are not able to access facilities such as rapecrisis centres, Aids care, or to get a protection order from the courts if we encounter domestic violence. There is also a lack of interpreters, with very few interpreters working in the regions," she said.

Shihepo has attended numerous workshops where she has spoken for the rights of women with disabilities, especially the deaf. She is active in the women's movement and represents her fellow deaf women effectively.

In 2004, she attended Sister Namibia's training workshops for facilitators of the Namibian Women's Manifesto Network. "We learnt about abuse of children with disabilities and all other children. We also talked about different family relationships and how they affect children, and learnt about the new Maintenance Act."

Shihepo is now keen to organise workshops on gender issues for the deaf. "My concentration is on deaf women because when workshops are combined, we need interpreters and messages take too long to be delivered."

She explained that she is currently working with 30 to 40 deaf women in Windhoek, and many more around the country. "I am working with people on HIV/Aids and other issues that affect women, through workshops, meetings, and through networking."

Through these women she wants to spread a message of hope to other women in their regions. She wants them to inform deaf women that there is help to be found at the Namibian National Association of the Deaf.

"At the association, I am the only female member of staff. The problem is that we are a non-governmental organisation with a small budget, which makes it difficult to employ more people even though they are needed."

Shihepo explained that most of their work involved advocacy on key issues affecting deaf people. "The government always thinks we can wait. As long as a matter involves the deaf it can wait ... No, I do not think so. Deaf people in this country can only attend school to a certain level," she pointed out. And tertiary education for deaf people in Namibia, as in many African countries, is severely limited.

Shihepo has been a board member of the NNAD for five years and has worked directly for the association for one year.

Last year she participated in the women's writing workshop of the Namibian Centre for Women's Leadership. "That workshop was the best because it awakened me ... it taught me not to fear but to express myself and to share my experience effectively," Shihepo said.

She urged deaf people to approach the NNAD and not to fear. "They should feel free to come because this association belongs to them. It is there to fight for their human rights."

When asked about her family, she gave her beautiful smile and confirmed that she had one child, a boy called Bandule. "My husband is also deaf. We met at Eluwa. But our son is not deaf. He can speak and he also knows how to sign. Sometimes, he pretends that he can not speak!" she laughed.

"We are a happy family and we are okay, we are normal ... my child is just like all other little two-year-old boys," she said. She leaves her child with an Oshiwambo-speaking care giver but in good humour, she states her belief that "children should know how to speak their mother tongue. My child speaks sign language!"

Shihepo is a middle child and has two brothers and two sisters. Her parents live in Owamboland and she visits them from time to time.

"I love my family, and they love me too. I have a younger sister who always rushes to my side. She says she's my lawyer ... I think I am a lucky woman."

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The office of NNAD is in Pasteur Street, Windhoek; Tel: (061) 244 811, Fax: (061) 244 811, email nnad@iway.com.na
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Author:Mwondela, Chilombo
Publication:Sister Namibia
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:1122
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