Fighting against the violent tide

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(excuse the tiny, dodgy photo, I’m limited by technology in a far flung place).

Today I woke up in the most violent country in Latin America, and not long after breakfast there was a blast of gunfire nearby (or maybe it was just an early morning fireworks display, mum).

But I spent the day in a place known as ‘the refuge’ where flocks of bright green parrots whizzed (and shrieked) overhead, and children of all ages played together in a beautiful garden. Where another kind of life felt possible.

We spent the day with Pamela Leon, a relaxed Guatemalan lawyer in a turquoise polo shirt, who set up the refuge after encountering the horrific injustices and abuses suffered by the victims of domestic violence in her country. Very few of these cases even make it into the country’s legal processes, but the few she saw were enough.

Domestic violence has somehow, heartbreakingly, become an accepted part of Guatemalan culture, as much within the church as outside of it. (And Guatemala boasts the highest numbers of Christians in Central America, outside of the traditional Catholic church. It’s a sidenote to where I’m going, but this just hits me in the guts, how can we offer so hope little to the world?).

I met women today who arrived at the refuge barely recognisable, bruised and swolen from all the blows they had so recently received. There are plenty theories as to why this violence persists, some tracing its normalisation back to the long civil war from 1960 to 1996, and others (including Pamela) believing instead that it began with the violent colonisation of the country in the 16th century. The question that matters, however, is how ‘normal’ gets rewritten in a country’s psyche (or even just a family’s).

It’s not that it’s legal. Guatemala actually has an impressive legal system and a series of laws which protect women. On paper they’re great. If only it led to action. Corruption and machismo combine to mean that women and children are left undefended and unheard, and that men are shown preferential treatment. Pamela shared how when the police are called out by women who have been beaten by their husbands, it isn’t unusual for the police to suggest that they just need to learn to cook better, or make more effort with their appearance.

Pamela’s project is, for a privileged few, making possible the life that the law is supposed to enshrine. She and her tiny staff team are helping these women create a different future. The women come and live at the refuge for a year or so, with their children. In contrast to where they have come from, it is safe and peaceful. The children are able to go to school. The women are given psychological support, a calm environment, friendship, prayer and love. There are small businesses through which they can earn money. They are encouraged to study and to find work. (Today one of them was taking her entrance tests to train as a nurse). If they are prosecuting their aggressors then Pamela takes up their defence and advises them legally. Sadly there are few other lawyers who will defend these women because of how hard it is, and the lack of financial reward.

El Refugio is the only project of its kind in the country. If, miraculously, your situation is taken seriously, then if you’re lucky you’ll end up in a government-run service which offers respite for 48 hours up to a maximum of 3 months. They don’t offer any lasting way out, so your situation probably won’t change in the long-run. Pamela’s project can take 7 women and their children at a time.

It’s a drop in the ocean.

And I know the ocean is made up of many (squillion) drops but it must feel like blowing against the wind.

Pamela is less defeatist, and it’s because she has genuine faith that there is a bigger story than these depressing statistics suggest. She feels called (you’d need to, to undertake such a courageous and dangerous task, especially as a single woman), and says that her part is obedience to that calling. She is not single-handedly responsible for turning the tide, but she will play her part.

And maybe that’s the only way to fight violence: to refuse its tactics, to resolutely live out an alternative, to be patient and compassionate and do what you can, to defend others and create space for their healing and rebirth. It’s not fast (unlike the alternative), but perhaps it grows something that will endure?

A Ruby by any other name…

Do any of you remember a campaign run by the Body Shop in 1998 featuring the “Ruby” doll?  In case you don’t, here she is:

She was swiftly shut down by Mattel, the owners of Barbie, who felt she was making them look bad.  (Or just obscenely thin).

You could argue that producing another plastic doll wasn’t the best way to challenge stereotypes of women in the media.  The very concept of reducing femininity (or even masculinity) to an inanimate ideal is flawed and unhelpful.  But it got a lot of people’s attention and, in Anita Roddick’s words,  “[exposed] the cruel irony of the myth that a company must make a woman feel inferior in order to win her loyalty.”

I stumbled across her voluptuous form only a year or so ago while googling on behalf of my theatre company, The Ruby Dolls.  I enjoy the coincidence of our names.

And I’ve thought about her again this past month, while The Ruby Dolls have spent August performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.  We’ve had a fair amount of press attention, most of it really positive.  And during our very first interview, we were grilled on our feminist credentials.

How could we claim to be intelligent women telling important stories with a name that made us sound like “a strip-tease act” (asked Fest Magazine)?  Why had we chosen such a pejorative name, seemingly contradicting our more sophisticated ideals?

Read the rest of my blog over at The Sophia Network.

A film showing there is more to Buxton than the water

To break up the theatrical reflections, here’s a little film I made a month or so ago about some beautiful, wonderful people I met who run a project in Buxton.  Before I went, I knew nothing about Buxton except the water they bottle. Now I am planning my next trip… The couple who lead it have live in their main care home with their family for more than a decade, totally sharing their lives with the people they’re trying to serve.  So inspiring. Enjoy.

(You can find out more in my other blog about my visit here)

Good News Family Care from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

How much hope is enough?

Today I heard two stories I want to share.

This morning I heard a 20 year old talk about a project she’s running called The 139 project (check it out on facebook).  It involves photographing people across the UK (and, I guess, beyond) holding a piece of A4 paper with a message on it for women living in poverty around the world (a disproportionately large number compared to the number of men).  You can take a photo of yourself and upload it to join in.  The messages say all kinds of things from “You are not forgotten” to “Your strength softens our hearts”.  The photos are going to be printed onto fabric and made into huge quilts which will go to the British government to campaign for fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals, and then to women’s empowerment groups in poor countries around the world.

Jenny, who runs it (no, not me, believe it or not I am older than 20 now…) is full of passion and hope, which is infectious.

And then I read my friend Hannah’s blog about her last day in Mumbai, where she visited a brothel with an organisation working to free trafficked women.  In that one district she was told there were 15 brothels housing 75,000 women. Yes I typed that right.  The organisation she was with helps about 25 women out a year. How on earth do you keep hold of faith and hope in the midst of that? I can’t begin to imagine.  Please read her blog here.

Healed by the hills of Derbyshire

Why has nobody told me about the Peak district before? All I knew about it was that Elizabeth Bennett was travelling in Derbyshire when she bumped into Mr Darcy at Pemberley, and I remember all those romantic shots of Kiera Knightley standing on a big rock looking at the hills.  But even those happy connotations failed to do justice to how flippin beautiful it is.

I dragged myself out of bed on Monday morning *before 6am* to get the first train of the day to Buxton, and spent the first hour of the journey asleep. But then, oh my, how beautiful the countryside became.  And, even more excitingly, we went out to a real farm when we arrived – one with 500 chickens (I didn’t mention my minor chicken phobia, which is actually more of a beak phobia) and 3 horses.  And no running water or electricity.

We were there because the farm is part of a project called Good News Family Care.  People from the local community can do skills training there in animal husbandry, woodwork, woodland management, drystone walling (all of these would be new skills for me, although of varying levels of usefulness in the city). But the main vision of the place is to provide space for healing and growth (and I feel like I experience a bit of that myself being in such amazing surroundings).  A lot of the people who come along, who connect with the project, have been battered and bruised by life (and some by their partners).  Most of them have no experience of being outside of an urban context. So whether someone wants to come and acquire new life skills, or just watch the horses, they’re more than welcome.

Horses in the yard

The other site they own which we visited was Charis House, a converted hotel now offering supported housing for vulnerable women and children, and families who need help in working through serious problems.

We spend the day with Hazel who set the project up with her husband about 18 years ago, having dreamt about it for the 14 years before that.  For all of the past 18 years they have lived in a flat on the top floor of Charis House, alongside all of the vulnerable and chaotic families who have passed through. Before that they lived in the countryside. I’m seriously impressed by their commitment, and their stamina, but they’re adamant that there have been more highs than lows. (Hazel tells us the hardest thing to give up was her goats).

I meet a 47 year old woman who everybody tells me has changed beyond recognition since being at Charis House. Some 17 years ago she came with her husband and four children.  Her husband had a drug habit and would sell her to his friends for sex to make money to support it.  She had such problems with anger she would lock up her children and refuse to feed them.  But today she is bubbling over with enthusiasm, telling me how her life has changed, and how Jesus has changed it. She tells me an incredible story of how God healed her blindness (she’d been blind in one eye since birth).

What I love about this place, and in fact so many of the UK projects I’ve visited recently, is the depth of spirituality underpinning and threading through them.  They’re not just people doing great social work which is motivated by their Christian faith.  They are people who are deeply committed to giving others more than a helping hand.  They want to express the depth and breadth of God’s love to people, believing that it is the only thing that is enough to meet them in the deepest place of need.  Nothing is forced on their guests but there is an integrity and honesty about the fact that they believe that there is more to life than just meeting physical needs.  Every morning the team meets and prays for everyone staying in the house and for everything they will be engaging with that day.  It’s not something most people see, but you notice the effect.  There is a sense of peace and trust and faith and togetherness in the midst of all the chaos and pain that they encounter.

So Derbyshire isn’t just good for a holiday and literary sightseeing, it’s also good for the soul.  I’m now trying to plan another trip…

A tale of two Scrabble players

I am spending International Women’s day with the oldest woman I know. Mrs F (that’s not a code name, it’s what I’ve always called her) is 92 (she’s pretty comfortable with you knowing that). I have known her and loved her all my life. She lives in Eastbourne and her daughter is my (very wonderful) godmother. She is an amazing gardener and cook, and whenever we visit we eat whatever has been growing in the garden. She enjoys the Telegraph crossword, plays a daily game of Scrabble, and she likes to argue about politics with my husband, Andy.

When I saw her today I told her it was International Women’s Day and I asked her if she thought the world had got better or worse for women in her lifetime. She thought about her own life in the south of England and said she thought women in the UK were much better off financially today and had more freedom but she didn’t think they were happier. “We had so much fun when we were younger. We had nothing, but we worried much less.” In her mind, British women today are stressed, anxious and time-poor, for all their progress. “And those models in the magazines. They never look happy.” She is also concerned that today’s women don’t know how to cook proper nutritious meals.

I asked her how hopeful she feels about the world her three great-grand-daughters are inheriting, and she’s optimistic. Their education is opening doors that she never dreamed of going through. She prays for them.

Once a week I have a Scrabble-playing, tea-drinking date with another friend called Maire. Maire is a year younger than the queen (I like to remind her of this when she feels especially old). She thinks the world has totally changed in her lifetime and mostly, for the worse (although she’s generally in favour of the improvements in human rights, and indoor toilets). To quote her, she’s pretty sure that “the world is going to hell in a handcart” (figuratively, because she’s adamant that there’s no afterlife).

Maire has very little hope for the world – and she can cite some compelling evidence: the raping of the environment and unsustainability of our lifestyles; the breakdown of family in her city and neighbourhood which she connects with the aggression and lawlessness of local young people; chronic and incessant conflict around the globe. Her life has been interesting and cultured, but today she feels she has no reason to live. She has no close family; she is housebound and disabled; everyone she loved most in life has died.

It might seem strange that on International Women’s Day my thoughts go to these two women before the millions of other women experiencing the painful consequences of inequality around the world today – be it through abuse, exploitation, lack of education or access to food, water or medicine. But they bring home very personally to me how hope and change and progress aren’t just about what happens on the outside of us. There’s a constant and dynamic interplay between our circumstances and our beliefs about ourselves and the world. It’s possible to have hope in the bleakest of circumstances (as some Holocaust survivors have demonstrated); it’s equally possible to feel oppressed and despairing in the context of seeming freedom and plenty.

I think one of the reasons Mrs F feels ok about the world and the future is that she has invested (and is investing) something in it. Through her family, through her relationships, through her prayers. That’s not meant as a judgment of Maire, because she’s had much less opportunity to do that. When the world is increasingly remote, threatening and lonely and you feel powerless to do anything about it, when you don’t believe in an ultimate purpose or direction in life, it’s hard to find much foundation for hope.

So what am I going to invest in this question of women’s place in the future of the world? It’s actually not just a question about women – the world will be better for everyone if there is equality of opportunity and respect afforded to men, women and anyone in between. The staggering statistics for domestic abuse and gender violence around the world alone overwhelm and horrify me. But that’s not the whole story. My view of the world is never composed solely of the physical realities. It’s always shaped by what I believe to be possible. And I know things have changed for women in this country so I’m gunning for them to change some more, for everyone’s sake.

Here’s whose work I’ll be supporting: Restored.

And coming soon: a little film about an amazing woman I met in Argentina who works with victims of domestic abuse.

Consola

When I was in Kigali last week, I was sharing a room with a wonderful woman called Consola.  On our last evening she shared some of her story with me and she has very kindly allowed me to tell it here.  She is a couple of years younger than me, but it seems like she has lived twice as long.

When Consola was a child she lived with her aunt for 7 years, a normal practice in many parts of Africa.  Her parents were far away in Kagera.  But the years wit her aunt were unusually brutal: she was made to sleep in the store cupboard and woken with cold water every morning; her aunt beat her with wire brooms and fed her rotting food from the dustbins.  She loved school but was made to walk her younger cousin to a different school further away every day, so that she was only in school herself for 2 hours out of every 8 hour school day.

When she got to 11, her aunt told her she was a girl and didn’t need to go to school anymore.  This is not unusual in Tanzania – it is around that age that girls are taught instead how to manage a husband. There was man, who had a business selling magazines, and her aunt had arranged for him to marry Consola.  Consola had not even hit puberty yet.

And so Consola prayed.  She prayed that God would spare her and rescue her, and she wrote God a letter.  If he would rescue her, then she would give her life to serve other vulnerable young girls in her country.

God did rescue her.  She didn’t get married, and her father wrote a letter to a friend who was an official, which meant she was accepted into a good secondary school without exams, despite having only a basic ability to read, write and add and subtract. Up until then she had been begging for school fees at the town offices, and been refused, and accused of bring a prostitute.

Her aunt found out where she was at school and bribed a few of the teachers so that one day as she arrived at school she was beckoned into a private room where her aunt was waiting.   The teachers locked the door and she was beaten by all three teachers and her aunt for 8 hours.  At the end she was in a horrific state.  She knew she had to leave.

Her only hope was to make it to where her parents were.  She somehow avoided the police who were looking for her, and made it to the far distant city  in the north-west of Tanzania called Mwanza.  In the bus  she met a man who claimed to be a resident of Mwanza, and seemingly trustworthy man who promised to accommodate her in his house where he was living with his family. Instead he took her to a motel where he produced a condom, assuring her that she wouldn’t get HIV if she slept with him. She refused and praying to God for protection. He attempted to force her but when she screamed he pushed her outside.

Miraculously she made it back to the bus station and on to Kagera. She was with her parents only a short time before she was admitted to hospital where she was a patient for six months, to recover from all her injuries.

It’s incredible to believe that the woman I am talking to has really endured this.  ‘I could never tell the story without crying all the way through,’ she says, ‘but now I have been able to forgive.’  It’s amazing.

Since then Consoler has been to university, and completed a BA in Sociology and an MA in Social Work.  She has defied all of the doctors’ predictions and warnings and has married and conceived 2 children, although she is under close medical supervision and still struggles with ongoing head and back pain.

More than that, she has dedicated her qualifications, her time, her energies to setting up a project in Dar es Salaam called New Hope for Girls, which works with vulnerable teenage girls, facing many of the same circumstances she endured.  It’s a small operation and she does not take a salary.  Many of her friends have urged her to find more lucrative work, but in her heart she knows that God has called her to this work and he will provide for them.

If you’d like anymore info on the project, just send me an email – jennyflannagan@gmail.com