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Creating golden endings for victims of trauma and abuse

Confronting reminders of the deeply entrenched inequality women still face

Fatana was only 12 years old when she was forced to marry a man who was 10 years older than she was to settle a family feud. Soon afterwards, she became pregnant with her first child – a girl. Fatana’s husband was angry that she had borne him a daughter, not a son, and beat her severely. The injustice and trauma of this were profound, made worse by the fact that Fatana was still only a child.

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Three more daughters followed and the beatings became even more brutal. Pipes. Wood. Even an axe –  whatever Fatana’s husband could find.

Fatana’s story is a confronting reminder of the deeply entrenched inequality that women continue to face around the world.

Fatana eventually bore two sons and life was a little better for a while. Soon, however, Fatana’s husband took a second wife, with whom he had fallen in love. Fatana had never felt loved by her husband and seeing him in love with another woman only exacerbated her sense of rejection.

Before long, Fatana’s husband cast her and her six children out onto the street. Thankfully, some neighbours took pity on her and she was referred to the care of Hagar, an international organisation that supports women and children to heal and rebuild their lives after being trafficked, enslaved or abused.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day today, Fatana’s story is a confronting reminder of the deeply entrenched inequality that women continue to face around the world.

We at Hagar see examples of this inequality in our work every day. Of the estimated 40 million people entrapped in slavery today, 71 per cent are women. Women make up 99 per cent of those in commercial sexual exploitation and 84 per cent of those in forced marriage.

In China, the combined impact of the decades-old one-child policy and a clear preference for boys has resulted in a population with 30 million more men than women. This has created demand for wives from neighbouring countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, with many women migrating to China on the false promise of a job opportunity only to find, once they have crossed the border, that they are being sold into forced marriage to Chinese men.

We believe that different endings are possible for stories of trauma and abuse.

Hagar has had the opportunity to support some of the women who have escaped. They are usually deeply traumatised and sometimes physically injured.

As with every person Hagar helps, these women are not “victims of trafficking” to us. We don’t see the label; we see unique and wonderful human beings with great potential. We believe that different endings are possible for stories of trauma and abuse. After all, that is the message of our founding story – the biblical story of Hagar.

When her mistress, Sarai, was unable to bear children, Hagar was forced to marry and sleep with Sarai’s husband, Abram, in the hope that she would bear him a child. Hagar did conceive but that caused Sarai to “mistreat” her.

When Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was a teenager, Sarai (now Sarah) conceived and gave birth to a son of her own and, ultimately, Hagar and Ishmael were sent off into the desert. Soon, they ran out of food and water and faced imminent death.

We are motivated by a God who sees those who are enslaved and abused in hidden places.

But Hagar cried out to God in her moment of desperation and he heard her cry. Providing water to save them from death, God promised that he would make Ishmael into a great nation.

The story of Hagar is a sad and complex story of human suffering inflicted by the failings of human beings. Yet God intervened and provided a different ending to the story. Hagar called God: “the God who sees me” and this reference conveys the heart behind all we do at Hagar.

We are motivated by a God who sees those who are enslaved and abused in hidden places. We not only want to see these individuals but, more importantly, help them to secure their freedom, heal from the trauma they have endured and be empowered to go and help others.

The impact of this approach is beautifully illustrated by a young Cambodian woman called Sophea. After being given into slavery by her father at the age of four and enduring eight years of unimaginable abuse, Sophea came to Hagar and started her long journey to recovery.

Now a young woman in her early 20s, Sophea is driven by a passion to help other young girls just like her and is working as a qualified social worker. In 2017, she came to Australia and gave powerful evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into whether Australia should introduce a Modern Slavery Act. That act is now law and Sophea is proud to have played a small role in helping achieve that outcome.

In addition to seeing individuals like Sophea healed, whole and empowered to change the lives of others, Hagar’s work often challenges the stereotypes and cultural norms that continue to entrench disadvantage and inequality.

We challenge this damaging view that women will always live with the stigma of their abuse.

For example, in Afghanistan, we have supported women – such as Fatana and her six children – not only to heal, but also to build a livelihood and live independently in their own home. This may not seem significant but, in a country where women rarely live alone without a male relative, this simple act challenges cultural norms.

In Cambodia, there is an old saying that men are like gold, which, when dropped in mud, can easily be washed clean again; whereas women are like white cloth, which, when dropped in mud, is impossible to make white again. Yet, each time Hagar supports a woman or girl who has been sexually abused to heal and reclaim her dignity and place in society, we challenge this damaging view that women will always live with the stigma of their abuse.

If we look to Jesus as our example, we see that this is how he worked too. He often ignored cultural norms and stereotypes for the sake of reaching individuals. He healed on the Sabbath; talked freely with the Samaritan woman at the well; told Martha that her sister Mary had made a good decision when she abandoned preparing dinner to sit and listen to Jesus; and welcomed women such as Mary Magdalene into his group of followers – women whose backgrounds were considered shameful but who were now helping to support Jesus and his disciples out of their own means.

As Christians, let us boldly and proactively stand on the side of justice and equality.

International Women’s Day reminds us, as every day should, that there are millions of women around the world – including here in Australia – who continue to suffer discrimination, violence and slavery. Let us ensure we truly see these women and work together in a sustained and focused way to bring this suffering to an end.

It should also prompt us to reflect on whether any of our own attitudes and behaviours may be helping to entrench inequality and prevent women and girls from achieving their full potential.

As Christians, let us boldly and proactively stand on the side of justice and equality. For, as the Bible makes clear in Galatians, there is neither male nor female in Christ. Let us see each woman and each girl just as God sees her – loved by Him, inherently valuable and full of potential. Just as he saw Hagar in her darkest moment.

Jo Pride is executive director of Hagar Australia.

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