No more limits: rising above sexual abuse

The sun has retreated and it is a cool, moist day in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth. Over 30 young women are gathered for a unique retreat, hosted by Eve for Life.

All of them are mentors, mentees and life coaches with one thing in common – they are all survivors of sexual abuse.

Eve for Life works with these women, their partners and their families to gradually shift this from being a badge of shame, while lifting their dignity and self-esteem.

From shame to self-respect

It is intense and intimate work that can take years. It grows with repeated acts of love and words of empowerment. It builds with sessions carefully crafted to foster trust, communication and team work.

At this survivors retreat, I arrive to peals of laughter. The spirits here are too high to be dampened by the cloudy skies.

The ladies are being led in an exercise where they encircle each other. One by one, they have to lean into the supportive arms of the group that cradle them as they let go. This is about trust and it isn’t easy for everyone. They encourage each other out loud.

Survivors supporting survivors

Over and over, they fold into each other, giggling with relief – knowing they will be held.

Vanae Tomlinson is one of the young women who is more inclined to let go with ease.

She was referred to Eve for Life three years ago, at age 14, after being sexually abused by a family friend.

Abused by a family friend, aged 14

“Eve is like family,” she says. “They have helped me to rebuild trust, and to know that someone is always there for me.”

What Vanae now describes as a massive transformation of her life started with the powerful messages she now hears again and again at monthly meetings convened by Eve.

“They always tell me ‘no matter your circumstances you can always shine’, and that I should believe in myself. At one session, Auntie Joy (one of Eve’s founders) said ‘never limit yourself because you are a woman’. I will never forget that. That will always stay with me.”

Abused, pregnant and HIV+

Under Eve for Life’s peer-to-peer “Mentor Moms” programme, Vanae is mentored by Shanoy, who is seven years her senior. Mentor Moms do house visits with their mentees and check up on them regularly, in-between monthly meetings, working steadily through challenges and sharing joys.

Shanoy was referred to Eve when she was 19, pregnant and had just discovered she was HIV positive. She has been mentoring Vanae for about a year.

“My first mentor played a vital role for me,” says Vanae. “Shanoy is doing the same now. She is always checking up on me. Sometimes I’m so down, and she is always there. It feels nice to know someone cares.”

“Beautiful. Caring. Outspoken. Marvelous.”

Once a very shy girl of few words, Vanae has blossomed under Eve’s care. Her growth in self-confidence has led not only to strides in personal development but to academic success.

“I am more focused in class now,” she says. “Because I remember them saying ‘don’t give up, no matter what’.” Vanae recently sat the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) exams, passing 10 subjects with outstanding results.

I ask Vanae to tell me some of the ways she would have described herself three years ago. “Ugly. No confidence. Lacking knowledge about life. Always trying to please people. Shy.”

Today, she uses remarkably different words: “Beautiful. Caring. Outspoken. Marvelous.”

She pauses before choosing the next description. “Just awesome!”

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UNICEF supports Eve for Life in implementing a range of interventions to support and empower survivors of sexual violence and provide mentorship for young mothers, some of whom are HIV positive. Read more about Eve’s work here:


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