Survivors Emerge Victorious
By Shaahidah Riza
She was only 11, a young mother breast feeding her six month old baby. Her manner was childlike, as befit her age, and her hair was braided in two. Her expression was intense, yet dead. 11 years ago when 19-year-old American engineering student Alia Whitney-Johnson was asked to write a fundraising letter on behalf of a shelter for teenage mothers located in Moratuwa, she set off equipped with a camera and a writing pad to pen a gut-wrenching fundraising letter.
Although knowing that she was visiting abused girls, she didn't expect to see mothers as young as 11, impregnated by force; thereby, compelled to a life of hell, pregnant and alone. However, the resilience of these young girls, subjected to rape and incest, who chose to stand up against their perpetrators in Courts, although, there was the risk and being locked up for their own safety, made a lasting impression on Whitney-Johnson, who decided to facilitate their struggle.
Whitney-Johnson was in Sri Lanka, in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, helping with relief efforts. As an engineering student, she was inclined to explore opportunities pertaining to her course of study, and had no real interest with regard to working with women and children, till she entered a home for teenage mothers, which changed her life drastically.
11 years later she became the director of the multi faceted Emerge Global which facilitates these abject young girls, to lead lives devoid of the misery their perpetrators subjected them too. Emerge Global provides these girls with business opportunities and skills that would empower them to venture in to the unknown. The 'unknown' in this case, is the plethora of skills and privileges in life which many take for granted.
What started as a beading workshop grew in to a fully fledged business prospect for these girls, a more equipped shelter and the strength to combat the stigma caused by the despicable situation they were thrust into. The young girls had been living in the shelter for a greater part of their teenage lives, cast out by their own families.
Lacking exposure in social interaction, they are immensely vulnerable to the world outside their comfort zone. Conversely, their education has also been halted, as they cannot pursue a regular school education for they may endanger themselves by providing access to their perpetrators.
Underage and Pregnant
Speaking to Ceylon Today, Whitney-Johnson mapped the journey of Emerge. She said,
"Coming from the USA, I knew what a teenage mother was; being a teenage mother there, is certainly hard. But I had no idea the level of stigma and difficulty teenage mothers in Sri Lanka go through. When I went to the shelter, they started pulling out the files of these young girls.
All of these young girls were very poor and they all had been impregnated by force and, often it was a family member. They were in the midst of very long trials. A number of these young women have been brave enough to actually go to the Police themselves, and turn in their father, brother or their uncle often to protect their younger siblings. For some of them, their abuse was reported by a teacher or a neighbour.
There were several cases where the girl had been abused all her life, but when she became pregnant, she knew, as soon as it was found out she will be disowned by the family. This would leave her little sisters at risk of being abused. She didn't want that to happen. Therefore she would report it to the authorities as a preventative measure."
Witnessing the 11-year-old girl nursing her baby, Whitney-Johnson realized the colossal pressure this child was up against. She cannot give the child up for adoption till she was 18, as she was not old enough to sign the paper work; she said, and added that the girl's parents were also not allowed to give the child up for adoption as they were involved. The little girl was in fact, impregnated by her father. Whitney-Johnson said, "When she come of age, she will have to make a very difficult choice to whether or not to keep her seven year old child, who is her only family member.
She was not allowed to go to school, she was only 11, but locked up for her own safety for the duration of her Court case which was taking a very long time. At present, the trials are processed faster. But at that time the girl's case dragged on for 6 years.
I was completely overwhelmed, but also aware of how remarkable it was that she had the courage to come forward and she was willing to speak out and willing to protect others. I was 19 then, and she was only 11, I didn't think I could do that. Up until that moment I was always focused on science and maths. I thought engineering would solve the world's problems. But it struck me that there was no engineering or math formula that would help these girls or put their lives back in order. It was much more complicated.
The healing process she needed to go through, the loss of education she had to compensate for, and the several social and cultural obstacles she was going to face had to be taken into account. At the same time, there was also the potential to whom she really was, and who she wanted to become. "
The predicament of this little girl bespeaks the plight of all the children in the shelter who were sexually abused, impregnated by force and ostracised by society. When Whitney-Johnson first entered the shelter she was met with 18 such girls and was at wits end as to how to deal with the situation. Ironically, she also felt vulnerable in that situation, a white foreigner, who was not conversant in the local tongue, it occurred to her that her facial expression would be the only source of communication perceived by the girls.
"I didn't want to handle it in the wrong way. But I did want to help. I knew that I will be judged completely by my facial expressions. There were 18 little girls looking at me. However, the counsellor who was giving the tour did speak a little English," she said.
Working with Beads
At this point Whitney-Johnson's entrepreneurial instinct kicked in, and an idea dawned upon her. A jewellery maker since the age of seven, she had evolved in to a successful jewellery designer. Therefore, she introduced the vocation to the girls at the shelter who were thrilled to be working with her, showing a remarkable spark of creativity. Whitney-Johnson added, "I had some beads at my apartment, because I had started making jewellery at a very young age, I had a little business where I make glass jewellery and I felt it was really lucrative as it had a high profit margin.
If I could do it, so can these girls. The youngest was 11. They had come from different religions and different backgrounds, but making jewellery is something they all can do, despite the fact that they have not attended school. Because I didn't speak Sinhalese, or Tamil, I wanted an activity to get to know them better.
I felt profoundly uncomfortable standing there with a pad and camera, and felt that writing my fundraising letter without actually engaging with them I was re-objectifying them all over again. They would have had enough objectification in their lives and I was not going to do that. Therefore I decided to introduce myself and hosted a beading workshop."
However, even this was a challenge to Whitney-Johnson who, although being an experienced jewellery designer had never taught a class, let alone a class comprised of children. Not knowing the local languages made the task even more demanding. Also, this class comprised of pregnant and breastfeeding young girls, babies and toddlers. Describing the first class, she said,
"It was chaotic. There were kids running around grabbing at the beads and grabbing at the pliers. I was worried that a child might poke his eye out or even swallow a bead. I was holding as many kids as I possibly could. The girls thought that it was really funny.
So they started a roster as to who would babysit the kids whilst the class was in progress, So that they could all participate. I put out all these beads on the table. I was struck by the fact that, the girls needed permission for every single bead.
They would pick up each bead and ask me whether they could use them, although I told them that they can use anything they want."
This made Whitney-Johnson realize that they have never owned anything, nor exercised control over any matters. Ironically, the only aspect which these children had absolute control over, their bodies and innocence, were brutally snatched by their perpetrators.
"All of a sudden I was offering them this choice, which made them very excited and also rather overwhelming. At the beginning nobody would talk, it was dark and depressing; there was some sort of heaviness in the air. It felt like all life had been sucked out from the room.
Within a day everybody was laughing. They really got engrossed in their jewellery making and explored with different colours and different sizes of beads. I brought a magazine with different designs they were flipping through it and were keen to work out how those were made.
They were having fun. They started to make necklaces and bracelets. There was so much laughter and joy. The counsellor observed that these girls were starting to act like children again. They had not been acting like children in the past. They had not worked together either. But now they were. I went to work, and started drafting my fund raising letter."
The counsellor in the shelter met with Whitney Johnson two days later and expressed her awe, stating that the beads were magical. She had observed that the children were acting like children, and were more vocal in expressing themselves.
She was also aware that Whitney-Johnson was with the girls for only one day and was not conversant in the local tongue, yet had managed to elicit a colossal change in the children. She added that there was something about this activity which helped the children to open up.
The counsellor, in question, a qualified and trained child psychologist, at that time was highly respected in the country. However she acknowledged the fact that she had not been into training for some time and recognized the prospect Whitney-Johnson had to offer. This was the inception of Emerge, where Whitney-Johnson worked on an art-therapy programme with the counsellor. She engrossed herself in research.
"I didn't know much about art therapy, so I spent some time doing a lot of research. It was really about the girls' self expression, helping them make their choices, as well as making them proud of their choices and their sense of beauty and willingness to present their choices to others."
Now a successful venture, Emerge Global recently opened another education centre in Colombo, equipped with educational material including computers to hone the social, academic and entrepreneurial skills of these girls; and as a bridge to compensate for the skills lack due to loss of education by being tucked away in the shelter; as a consequence of sexual abuse and subsequent pregnancy they have had to endure.
On a happier note, the little 11-year-old girl is now a young woman of 22, happily married and heavily pregnant once again. She is a major constituent of Emerge, and has now evolved in to an entrepreneurial jewellery designer.
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