July 17

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

I had this idea, lingering in my head, how I could avoid making this too personal and just take you with me on an inspirational six months journey where we address world challenges. The ones outside us. The ones that matter. Not mentioning the ridiculous things like fear of writing a blog. Nothing about my personal limitations. But fact is trying to work through them is a part of this journey. I was asked by someone recently if I’m aware that volunteering (and any kind of ‘giving to others’ really) is a selfish act. I am. I also happen to believe it’s the best kind of selfish acts. So that was simple (in my mind).

I was also asked by many more people why I’m doing this. ‘This’ being working with Save the Children in Vanuatu for six months through the GSK Pulse program. That was not as simple. There were many different WHYs – excited, worried (my parents of course), sceptic (you know who you are), inspired, confused, but mostly just simply curious. I realised my answers tend to differ slightly, depending on who I’m talking to. What do you do – tell your life story that brought you to this point / share one of the moments that inspired you (which one) / give a short ‘why not’ cause that’s how you feel in your excitement & anticipation? The more I was asked this question the harder it became to answer it. To explain it simply. Hence the headline with Einstein’s quote. I don’t understand it well enough. Yet.

I thought (mistakenly) I’d get clarity once I actually started working with Save the Children. First three weeks have in turn raised so many questions that seem to take me even further from a simple answer. I also thought (mistakenly) I’d present you with concise writing. Something profound, in only about 300 words (we’re already past that). As the chosen headline suggests, this is not going to be simple and short… I’m now focusing on just typing my thoughts rather than getting it right and concise. Part of me hopes you don’t have enough time to read through. Maybe by post number seven the writing will get better.

Save the Children Vanuatu team is a team of beautiful warm people. And throughout the world, Save the Children has a bold ambition: we believe in a world in which all children survive, have the chance to learn, and are protected from abuse, neglect and exploitation. In everyday life though, this ambition needs to survive through all the usual hurdles of local bureaucracy, logistic challenges, funding requirements/limitations etc. Bold ambition that requires a lot of patience. And patience gets a whole new meaning when children’s wellbeing or even survival is in question & feeling overwhelmed is not helpful.

I did get overwhelmed in the very first days, just reading through a Child Rights Situation Analysis report that was done in Vanuatu last year. Sometimes it was more than feeling overwhelmed. Paralyzed is a better word. Below list includes some reasons why paralyzed. I invite you to stop at each line for a minute and try to imagine actual (practical and emotional) impact on the everyday lives of children. Absorb the scale (chances) of the challenges, but then forget the percentages; just imagine a life of a child (or yourself, or your child) impacted by some of the below statistics.

– Only 42% of schools have access to clean and safe water and only 45% of rural households have access to soap and water.

– 84% of children have experienced violent discipline at home, 38% children spoke about being hit by teachers in schools and 51% of caregivers still view physical violence as necessary to raising children.

– Prevalence of sexual abuse against girls under 15 is one of the highest in the world – 30%, with some rural areas reaching 41%. Informal justice mechanisms and kastom are commonly used to resolve cases involving offences against children, including serious sexual offences, through the intervention of village chiefs, family, religious leaders. Practices such as sending child survivors away to live with other relatives or arranging for a child sexual abuse victim to marry the perpetrator or another male community member are still practiced in some areas.

– Abortions are generally illegal (and subject to two years imprisonment) with exception of some health grounds (e.g. to save the life of a women). Rape or incest doesn’t present legal grounds for abortion.

– Almost 30% of children are malnourished and 28% of children under 5 are stunted.

Coming here, I started to read a book by Roger Thurow, ‘The first 1000 days’. One of the notes I took from the book was: ‘The statistics were overwhelming, and you can’t help the statistic. But people you could help, one by one. One person is not overwhelming.’ The reason I chose this book was that I’m here to develop a communication strategy and implement a campaign for the program First 1000 Days in Vanuatu. Key objective of the program is to prevent stunting. But reading through various reports, the information about breastfeeding practices, proper diet diversity, poor handwashing practices and dangers of diarrhoea seemed to fade in my mind alongside statistics on violence, especially gender based and violence against children. I got overwhelmed. All those girls… I was a girl once… And I have a daughter… Almost 1 in 3 girls, age 15 or under, reported sexual abuse. I’m now a woman, 42. I was told not to walk alone in dark (this is after 6pm here). To avoid the danger of assaults. I got more overwhelmed. Stunting on the other hand was still quite foreign to me.

My emotions were running high. My mind became preoccupied figuring it out: why do I need to focus on health and nutrition and not on these appalling violence statistics; how do I balance all the kindness and smiles from people I meet with (to me) horrifying statistic I’m reading; what do you do when you can’t move freely after 6pm; why can’t I let go and just focus on key aspects that are relevant to First 1000 Days…

So, this journey which I wanted to be inspirational, but not too personal, from the start triggered something very personal and painful. My zero tolerance towards violence is rooted in moments that I’ve tried to make sure don’t define me, but they’ve certainly impacted me. Obviously, they still impact me (& it’s hard to accept that when you get reminded). Some of this I’ve shared with very few people and some with none: attempted rape by a stranger at age of 14 (prevented by my cousin), attempted rape by an acquaintance, an older man, at age of 17 (escaped), physical abuse by ex-husband at age of 20-21. It’s all far in the past.

As I went through the statistics, details of certain moments came to life. Feelings… of fear, helplessness, anger, sadness, desperation, numbness. Feeling of being paralyzed. My heart goes to every single person who is part of some of these horrible statistics. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t been raped and I have a loving family – mother, father, sister and daughter. I have amazing friends. There’s painful memories, yet most of my life has been beautiful and rich with wonderful connections. Once I gathered the courage to leave an abusive relationship, me and my daughter had the shelter of my family. Many victims of violence find no safety, have no one to turn to and nowhere to go. To imagine being a part of a community where a child sexual abuse victim must marry the perpetrator and even rape doesn’t present legal grounds for abortion is simply unthinkable to me. I got fixated and overwhelmed. Not being able to move alone freely after 6pm, made it worse. I don’t do well with imposed fear. And I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone about it.

It wasn’t until I came across a story about the Save the Children founder, that I pulled myself out of that paralyzed feeling. Imagine something very different now. A different time, about 100 years ago: a woman gets arrested in Trafalgar Square for campaigning to help starving children. She’s a British lady, campaigning for children – from Austria and Germany. Think about it – 1919, just post world war one. These children are from the enemy countries. She was handing out leaflets, that showed the emaciated children, with a headline: ‘’Our blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death.’’ Eglantyne Jebb got arrested & fined, yet the judge himself paid the fine, impressed by her commitment and that was the first ever donation to Save the Children organisation. Later, she was often told Save the Children ambition was impossible – that there has always been child suffering and there always will be. Her answer: ‘We know. It’s impossible only if we make it so. It’s impossible only if we refuse to attempt it.’ It clicked: it’s also impossible to change anything for anyone if you allow yourself to get stuck, overwhelmed and paralyzed.

I let the pain come, overwhelm me and go. I made myself refocus on learning about First 1000 Days. Some statistics initially evoked little emotions and required mental gymnastics to connect the numbers & words to actual impact on children’s lives. Like linking dry data about access to safe water and percentage of under-five mortality caused by diarrhoea – Vanuatu having one of the highest in the world (16%). Linking breastfeeding practices and dietary diversity to malnutrition. Learning the differences between hunger, undernutrition and malnutrition. Learning more about Sustainable Development Goals, one of them being to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030. Stunting and other forms of undernutrition are thought to be responsible for nearly half of all child deaths globally. Vanuatu has one of the highest childhood stunting rates in the Pacific (28.5% in 2013 , Australia in comparison 1.8% in 2007). Most impacts of stunting are irreversible but stunting itself is preventable with the right care and nutrition in first 1000 days. First 1000 days also impacts the development of child’s cognitive abilities, performance in school and later in life. This cycle can carry on from generation to generation (especially with very young mothers who themselves are stunted).

I finished reading Thurow’s ‘The First 1000 Days’. Highly recommend it. Powerful illustration of different lives of mothers, families across the globe, sharing the common desire to see their children survive and thrive. I started to get a glimpse into how this matters. I connected. I also got more comfortable with using terms like ROI while talking about NGO programs. I accepted the fact I know nothing of this new world I stepped in. I reminded myself (several times) that using emotions (especially pain) to form judgements and make decisions won’t work. I reminded myself it’s unfair to define any person or culture with (what you see to be) their biggest struggle only. Unfair to narrow down anyone to one negative.

First time I visited one of the program communities, I didn’t take in much. Too much was happening in my own head. I was still overwhelmed. I was there seeing them as victims only – everyone, not ‘just’ 30%. Next time, I started engaging. I met wonderful people. Some very young mothers, some pregnant grandmothers, a lovely nurse, fathers, many other mothers, grandmothers, children, babies… I met facilitators who work in their peer groups to share the key messages of the First 1000 Days program. There’s always lots of questions and comments during workshops. I don’t understand everything as it tends to be a mix of English, French and mostly Bislama. But I can understand the caring looks towards babies and children who are there at the same time. I can understand the smiles. I can join their laughs. I can see curiosity in their eyes. Facilitators use just pictures to discuss & deliver the key messages. This approach was chosen because of low literacy rates, but also because storytelling is such is an important part of the Vanuatu culture. Still, sometimes I catch myself wondering what some of them had gone through, who is part of ‘the statistics’. And then I refocus on the moment. There’s mothers, fathers and grandmothers figuring out together how to give their child the best they can. That’s what matters for now. That’s not overwhelming or paralysing. It’s something wonderful to be a part of. As we drive back to Port Vila, my colleague Leitare is excited and proud: ‘What a great day. Days like this make me feel happy, because they show our efforts have impact’. I have nothing but admiration for her.

At home, I browse through photos, smiling as they remind me of moments from the day. I then think about dinner and realise it’s already dark outside and I can’t go to the shop anymore. Before getting upset or sad over the fact I can’t freely move whenever I please, I start writing notes. Things are coming together. Strategy draft is shaping in my mind. I’m no closer to explaining why I’m doing this simply, but I know it felt right when I applied for Pulse and it feels right to be here. It doesn’t ‘feel good’ all the time, but it does feel right. Several drafts and these 2000 and something words later, I (still) don’t understand it well enough. Yet. Be patient with me. Next time I’ll take you out to communities… I’m starting to be more present.

And about that ‘ridiculous fear’ of writing the blog? It’s beyond uncomfortable to open up & share what’s going on in my head and heart like this. That too doesn’t feel good, but by now it (almost) feels right. And if you did have enough time to read through, I’ll leave you with this last thought: show that you care, be kind, give a smile, recognize if you too are one of the lucky ones.

Sharing a laugh with pikinini from Pele Island 
Above: Pikinini  with their mamas, papas and apu women at the First 1000 Days workshop in Pounangisu