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Over the loud hum of the air conditioner, Veena Chatani, a volunteer yoga instructor, is a facing a room full of young women. She is explaining some breathing exercises that they can use when they are feeling stressed, or overwhelmed. Her voice is soothing and measured. Then it is time for everyone to practice – eyes closed and sitting up straight, away from the backs of the chairs. Deep breaths in…and out…
This is the start of a day-long support group meeting for EVE for Life’s ROAR (Restoring Order to All Relationships) mentees – survivors of sexual abuse many of whom are also HIV-positive, held in Montego Bay in early August 2017. Founded in 2008, EVE For Life is a Jamaican NGO providing support to survivors of sexual abuse, and women and children living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. In Jamaica, there is a high susceptibility to HIV infection among adolescent boys and girls largely due to early sexual initiation and high rates of forced sex. The EVE for Life mentoring and coaching programme is designed to provide support to the young women as they try to rebuild their lives and adhere to treatment.
Brining victims out of their shells
Initially the mood in the room is reserved, and only a sprinkle of whispers is heard occasionally. But everything starts to change when Joy Crawford – Director of Impact (with responsibility for Programmes), and co-founder of Eve for Life – introduces the next exercise…which involves dried prunes. Giggles begin to erupt around the room as the participants are asked to describe their “new friend” to the rest of the group. The descriptions are hardly flattering, and after everyone has had a turn, it’s time for reflection led by Joy. The exercise is designed to challenge our preconceptions of others, but it also succeeds in drawing many of the participants out of their shells.
As Joy explains throughout the day, the mentoring and coaching programme focuses on many topics like effective communication and healthy relationships, and the environment is a safe space where no one is judged for what they share.
Mid-morning we – the visitors – are invited to join an exercise where, in pairs, we share something that that stresses us followed by something that makes us happy. My partner for this task, Kay-Ann* tells me how the abuse she suffered when she was younger used to bring her near-constant pain and anxiety. But, she says, these days she is able to handle it much better. When sharing what brings her joy, she talks about her son and all the dreams she has for him. After we have both shared, we still have some time and discover a mutual love of movies about vampires. A few minutes later we rejoin the larger group, and we discuss how it made us feel to share these emotions and how it felt to be listened to. Phrases like “I felt lighter” and “It felt good to know I am not alone” float around the room, and there are nods of affirmation all around.
Silence protects abusers, not victims
Throughout the day, babies and toddlers come into the room. Many of the young women are mothers, and EVE for Life has organised a room for the children and a caregiver, so that the moms can participate freely in the day’s activities. Occasionally though, a baby needs to be fed, or a toddler needs his or her mother’s comforting embrace, and the moms slip out of the room.
I keep coming back to those words ‘it felt good to know I am not alone’ and how a culture of silence further harms survivors of violence. In 2015 alone the Office of the Children’s Registry in Jamaica recorded more than 3,800 reports of sexual abuse of children under age 18. Girls account for approximately 90% of victims of sexual abuse. Globally, millions of adolescent girls are victims of forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts, often by someone close or known to them. Many of the young women in the EVE for Life programme have been failed by society multiple times: abused by the very family members who are supposed to care for them; and shunned by their communities as a result of their HIV status. It is hard to imagine what the lives of these young women would be like without the sense of community and on-going support that EVE for Life provides.
*Not her real name