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When staying home isn't safe

By Agnes McGrane | 20 Aug 2020

Warning: contains mentions of sexual and gender-based violence that some readers may find upsetting.

Millions of us have been told to stay safe and stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But what happens when home is not a place of safety? Ella knows what that’s like. Now she’s helping others access the support they need.

Ella* was taught from a young age that, as a girl, she had little value beyond getting married and caring for a husband and children.

When she was growing up in a small village in rural Liberia, her father insisted that sending her to school would be a waste of time and money. Instead, when she was just eight years old, Ella was sent to a secret female society, which was aimed at preparing young girls for marriage.

Ella experienced female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as part of the initiation into the society. She then stayed with the society for two years and was trained in household tasks.

When Ella returned to her village, her family held a celebration to welcome her home.

However, after the party, Ella was brutally attacked and raped by a man from her village. When she confided in her parents, they told her she would now have to marry her attacker.

Fleeing violence
Traumatised, Ella ran away into the nearby forest. Scared and alone – and still just a child – she had no safe place to go.

After a few days, Ella met a hunter who took her in and let her stay with his family. But it wasn’t long before she was forced into a marriage with the hunter’s son – she was only 12 years old, he was 25.

Soon after, the Liberian civil war began. This forced her and her husband to flee to the safety of the capital city. However, coming from rural communities, they didn’t know how to survive in the city.

Over the years, Ella had seven children. The family lived in extreme poverty; Ella would go to a nearby creek to catch fish for food while her husband would work as a day labourer cutting grass in people’s gardens.

After a lifetime of abuse and trauma, Ella was worn down and losing hope. She began to turn to alcohol to escape feeling helpless and worthless.

Finally finding healing
Then Ella was invited to a Journey to Healing workshop run by Tearfund’s local partner. She met other women who had similar stories of suffering and abuse, and who also had no self-esteem left. Ella was finally able to share about her childhood trauma for the very first time.

As Ella and the women shared their stories, they found love and care within the group. They started to hope for a better future for themselves and their children.

The group of women also save money together and work on projects together that will help them earn an income. Ella started planting rice and peanuts close to her house in an open space. Now her children have enough food to eat each day, and Ella has a supportive friendship group.

For the first time in her life, Ella is starting to know her true worth and is positive about the future.

‘Now I have a family that cares,’ says Ella.

Challenging cultural norms
Unfortunately, as Ella discovered at the group, many young girls and women have been through similar traumatic experiences. Around 50 per cent of women and girls in Liberia have experienced FGM/C, where it is often viewed as a positive practice and a rite of passage into womanhood.

In communities where FGM/C is commonly practiced, Tearfund and our local partners are working to challenge the attitudes and beliefs that make this culturally acceptable.

In one project, aimed at helping expectant mothers to access healthcare, volunteers also provide educational information about FGM/C. They challenge the belief that this is a beneficial practice in the hope that mothers will choose to protect their daughters from this where possible.

Tearfund has created specific Bible studies relating to FGM/C and gender-based violence, making it clear that this goes against the Bible’s teachings to value women.

Faith leaders have influence in their communities and when they publicly share these counter-cultural teachings, attitudes start to shift.

Increased risk during lockdown
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, girls have been at an increased risk of gender-based violence.

Lockdowns have forced many girls and women into home environments that are unsafe and cut them off from outside support.

‘We have seen across the world that home is not a place of safety for many,’ says Sabine Nkusi, who leads Tearfund’s Gender and Protection Unit.

‘When girls are out of school, they become much more vulnerable. In Liberia, lockdown has provided an opportunity for families to send their daughters to secret FGM/C ceremonies.’

Stepping up support
Tearfund’s local partners have been doing all they can to continue to support women and girls during these challenging times. Many projects have quickly adapted to maintain a presence in communities via online meetings or messaging apps, or by offering new services.

Ella is playing a vital role in her community. Along with other members of her peer support group, she has been sharing key information about coronavirus, including its symptoms, and how people can protect themselves from it.

As the volunteers share this information, they are also able to maintain contact with vulnerable women in the community when they need it most. They have also used this opportunity to advise women on how to recognise and report sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic abuse and FGM/C.

As a member of the community, who has experienced this kind of violence first-hand, Ella is best placed to spread this awareness. As a survivor of sexual violence, she is now helping to protect and support other women.

‘I never thought that I could do this, that others would listen to me... I hope I can do more for other people in the future,’ Ella says.

PLEASE PRAY

*Name changed to protect identity

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or violence, please visit our friends Restored Relationships for support and resources.

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Written by Agnes McGrane