Fri | Dec 2, 2016

PROTECT US! - Young victims of sexual violence lash out

Published:Saturday | March 21, 2015 | 11:10 PM
A performer, Theoni Ellis, dramatises the pain felt by children who are the victims of abuse.

Inside a church hall in Montego Bay's bustling city centre, some 20 young women are on their feet, belting out Katy Perry's inspirational anthem.

Her hit song Roar inspired the name of this group, its members united by one common experience - they are all survivors of sexual violence.

Their abusers are men who shattered their ability to trust family, including their fathers, brothers, uncles. Their abusers were also young men who battered them and called it love. Their abusers also included business professionals, men in church robes, citizen leaders, predators who feel no shame stripping a girl of her innocence.

The Restoring Order in All Relationships (ROAR) support group has met once a month for the past year, as part of a female empowerment programme led by non-governmental organisation Eve for Life, with support from UNICEF and the British High Commission.

Many of the girls, who range in age from early teens to late 20s, had babies when they were themselves children - the offspring of sex that was forced, rape that was repeated, 'love' that was vicious. Some of them were left infected with HIV.

The girls open their meeting by talking about how ROAR has changed their lives. "I was sexually abused by my brother. I was raped by someone. I was beaten badly by my mother," Debbie* told the group.

"But now I have come to peace with what has happened. I have confronted my brother. I have learned to control my anger."

They break into small groups to talk through their feelings, including cases in the press recently. In this space, sentiments run much deeper than public alarm; these girls are living the stories that never make the news.

They have suffered the betrayal of disbelieving mothers, lived through the blame in their communities, worn the 'Jezebel' labels thrown at them. "You are lying", they have been told. "You deserved it."

Tasha* is 14, the same age as both pregnant teenagers who were murdered recently. Some younger ROAR members have told Eve for Life staff that this number scares them. Nowadays, they believe, 14 and pregnant can be a death sentence.

 

Community perverts

 

Tasha is soft-spoken but clear and candid. By her side is Eve for Life's resident counselling psychologist, who supports ROAR members around the clock - online, on the phone, on home visits. Tasha lives with her mother in a remote area in St James.

"In my community, there are a lot of perverts trying to have sex with children, especially girls," she says. "Otherwise, it is peaceful."

When she was 11, Tasha was sexually abused by male family members and later by a member of her church. Confused and frightened in two spaces that should have been safe, Tasha said nothing.

Once cheerful and talkative, she became despondent and spent a lot of time alone. One day, in grade seven, she told her teacher she wanted to commit suicide. The school called in both parents. The church case was reported, with help from Eve for Life, and is being investigated.

Tasha feels alienated from the mother who was meant to protect her. "That makes me feel sad. It makes me feel motherless," she said. "If I had a mother who I could trust and who had time for me, maybe things would be better."

Today, Tasha and other ROAR group members are sharing ideas about the kind of family and community support they think can make a difference for fellow victims and survivors of sexual violence.

"We want to be heard," said one girl. "We want people to

stop judging us," said another. "Communities need to stop blaming us. We need words of encouragement, not shame. And gossip hurts. Instead of talking about us, people should talk to us."

Tasha, like other ROAR members, has found a caring community within Eve for Life's groups. Each member commits to a two-year programme designed to teach them life and coping skills.

"It gives me a feeling of comfort to know I can talk to people now," said Tasha. "I no longer stay by myself, I have people to support me."