Last pages of the Vanuatu chapter. A place where everything and everyone was foreign to me and then suddenly comes a time of saying goodbye to places and people that have grown on you and shaped you. While some days here felt like never-ending (at the start), the six months feel like six weeks. Somewhere half way through, I sometimes found myself in moments that bewildered me, with a common thought behind them: ‘I got used to it’. Sometimes the thought came with a question mark, sometimes with an exclamation mark. The intensity of emotions that has perplexed me at the start, dwindled. I don’t know if this is how we protect ourselves as the intensity would be unbearable long-term. I know it scared me how quickly it happened.
In the first couple of months, it seemed impossible to me that I could get ‘used to it all’. To how unfair it felt. One Sunday, about a month into my Pulse journey, I was sitting on a beach, seeing in front of me colours that seemed unreal. It was like watching a perfect painting: white sand mingled with white waves, a small patch of transparent water turning into bright turquoise and in the distance the deep blue sea touching the vast dark pastel blue sky. I was watching and noticing all of this beauty and yet thinking: ‘I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be part of this. There’s no colour of the sea beautiful enough that can make it right for things to be as they are.’ I felt like it shouldn’t be that beautiful. Like it made people forget about the adversity here. Made them ignore it. They would come and be mesmerised by this beauty and then just go ahead with their lives, while violence continues. I could not forget or ignore it even in such moments.
As I forced myself to look for more nuances, I taught myself not to diminish everyone to one part of the reality that evokes so much pain. I surrounded myself with people choosing change. Replaced feelings of hurt with hope and went from feeling paralyzed to action mode. I loved working on the First 1000 Days campaign. Although it wasn’t directly targeting violence, it was addressing parenting and relationships. It addresses how parents can better care for each other and for children. It felt uplifting to collect evidence of positive change as an answer to all negative statistics I couldn’t quite process. I stopped looking at statistics and focused on individuals. I loved collecting stories from parents. You can hear one of them in the video below. Many more clips are on Save the Children Vanuatu Facebook page. I often wondered how they would resonate with me, if at all, had I not been here. I wonder how it will make you feel…
Unlike many Save the Children programs, working on First 1000 Days (time from pregnancy till age of two) means we interact with parents a lot more then children. Then, for 2019 World Children’s Day, we got the opportunity to invite some teenagers to see the work we’re doing in communities. We wanted to get their perspective on our programs and had them lead a panel discussion with government representatives, Save the Children and Unicef. This would mark the global 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC). First, I found out that none of the six (ages 14 to 19) knew there is such thing as children’s rights! On the filed visit, they spoke to a nurse at the neonatal intensive care, a midwife at the maternity ward, parents from First 1000 Days communities and finally consultant on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). They learned how impactful the circumstances you’re born into, are to everyone’s future potential. They learned about their rights as per CRC. After reflecting on their experience over the weekend, they arrived at our office Monday morning, full of questions like: ‘Why is maternity ward staff under-resourced?’ ‘Why don’t we learn about importance of first 1000 days and brain development in school?’ We were writing them all down and making a list of the ones they would later ask on a TV show.
At one point, a 16-year old girl asked a question that made everyone in the room go silent. She said: ‘I hear one thing often, from teachers at school, from chiefs and church leaders at our community events, from politicians at national celebrations… Very often I hear them say that children are Vanuatu’s future.’ After pausing she asked in a quiet, slow paced tone: ‘But I don’t see adults really acting that way? I mean, if we’re the future, why do we get beaten? At school. And many at home.’ Other kids looked down. I felt my heart racing. I felt ashamed for not raising the topic at all throughout our field visit. Now I wasn’t sure what to say. Silence was broken by my colleague asking how this made her feel. ‘Like we’re not human. Like we’re just animals.’ Other kids were nodding, now watching her as she looked down. This time, the silence that followed, was eventually broken by her: ‘That’s actually not the most important thing. That’s just how we feel in the moment. The true problem is that when you get hit, you start hating and avoiding that person. When it’s a teacher, you start skipping classes. You miss out on learning. Then you fail the exam. Then you drop out of school. As a drop out, you can only get a bad job. As a girl, you marry early. The true problem is not how we feel when we get beaten, it’s that they take away our chance of a better future.’
To put this in context – according to UNICEF statistics collected in Vanuatu from 2005 and 2013, 72% of children aged 2-14 experienced physical punishment in the home. Corporal punishment at home is lawful under the English common law defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. It’s unlawful in schools, yet 38% of adults said a child in their household had told them about being hit by a teacher in the past months. These numbers tend to be underreported out of fear of repercussions. Somehow, people choose to dismiss these numbers as they can include anything from smacking to violent sexual abuse. This is not an isolated Vanuatu issue. Too often people find justification of violence against children and accept it as ‘tradition’ or disguise it is as ‘discipline’. In most countries a child, the most vulnerable and dependant member of the society, is still also the only person whom it is legal to hit. Only 53 countries so far have banned corporal punishment of children in all settings. As of 2018, the list still doesn’t include countries like UK, USA or Australia. In the history of these three countries and many others, it was acceptable to hit women (particularly by their spouse), employees, prisoners, the mentally ill, children at school… Now the exception remain children who are hit by their parents?!? Everywhere, laws prevent one person from physically harming another and yet in most countries this basic human right doesn’t apply to children. Collectively, adults spend more energy on ignoring, disguising or justifying violence then on actually reinforcing child’s right to freedom from all forms of violence.
That 16-year old girl was very brave to ask ‘why do we get beaten at school’. A question asked with no accusation, just innocent curiosity, an attempt to understand her world and her future. She was able to ask the question because she does feel safe in her home. Many children have no safe space. Most stay silent. There’s a limited number of times you can speak up without being heard from someone, anyone. Silence is an agony for one person while it makes the majority around more comfortable. I felt many conflicting emotions as she spoke on the panel later that day. A girl who was a stranger to me, sharing just few hours of our lives, evoke simultaneously sorrow and anger and admiration. For some reason I felt proud of her and also ashamed of ‘using’ her voice. Perhaps I wished for a moment to have her bravery while also being grateful not to have needed it when I was sixteen. It struck me anyone, including myself, who is not part of the solution, is part of the problem. But I also knew I’d leave in few short weeks. Vanuatu is ‘just an episode’ in my life. And I felt terrible about that. About my privilege. Not about having it. About it not being universal. About her having to ask that question…
One of the things I find hardest is to get myself in the space to try to understand the other side when it comes to violence and abuse. To remind myself that for a chance to change a social norm, a trend, overwhelming statistics… you need to believe in individual’s ability to change. To leave judgement on the side for a moment and ask questions. Some days I simply don’t want to. Clear judgement requires so much less energy and cutting a line between right and wrong is easy. On days I manage to will myself to open up, to try to understand more, each time feels like I’m starting from scratch. Like I’ve made no progress. After war in ex-Yugoslavia I found it so hard to speak to men who I knew were in war. Where they in it to protect or to attack? Where they saving lives or taking lives of the civilians? In Cambodia, a survivor of their civil war told me how he had to live in the same village as the prison guard who made him watch while he tortured and killed his wife and children. He said he had to make a decision every single day not to do to his family what was done to him. I can’t even imagine that. When I worked on Lifeline, I could speak to anyone about anything they needed to, but I couldn’t handle calls from child abuse perpetrators.
I’m in awe of people who manage to find balance between not ignoring and condoning violence but face it, working to try to stop it and prevent it. And yes, sometimes unwillful ignorance is the cause. A teacher, attending Child Protection training by Save the Children shared that child safeguarding is not really covered through teacher qualifications program in Vanuatu. She simply didn’t know what positive discipline alternatives are. Another principal shared: ‘Our school has developed a Discipline Policy, but after attending the two days training on Child Safeguarding and Positive Discipline, I realized that the policy wasn’t really about discipline, it is about punishments.’ They committed to changing that. A father from the First 1000 Days program reflected: ‘Learning this changed me. I now have the responsibility to protect children, not just mine but all children in our community. I also learned how to confront someone who’s abusing children and help prevent that.’ Another mother shared how she finally managed to protect a girl in their community from repetitive abuse. Parents and teachers alike sometimes cry learning about child abuse, realising what they’ve been doing (or been seeing). Sometimes just one conversation changes people views and actions. Just sometimes… There’s no magic wands…
Conversations around gender-based violence seem more convoluted. Many people were surprised and outraged to hear about some of the statistics I shared in previous two blogs. But it’s tempting to wrap up child abuse and gender-based violence as part of ‘that culture’ and make it look irrelevant to places where it’s less obvious (because women can walk alone after dark). I wonder though why it continues to be over tolerated – everywhere. In our lives, with all the exposure to information and education we get… there’s no excuse of unwillful ignorance. With that, when it comes to sexual assaults, 1 in 5 women assaulted in New Zealand & Australia vs 1 in 3 in Vanuatu seems to me even more shocking.
Uncomfortable? Because you think it’s relevant or irrelevant for you? I’ve been examining a lot lately what to be tolerant of and what not. How often do you say nothing to avoid being uncomfortable? Change the subject? Avoid a person? Make a joke? For any reason, big or small, how often do you choose comfort over what you feel is right? How often do you just choose silence, witnessing someone being mistreated (perhaps yourself)? Maybe silence is a wrong word as we do tend to discuss ‘issues’ with friends, colleagues… mostly with people that can’t or won’t do much about it. I saw a short clip a while ago where Obama talked about the ‘woke’ call-out culture. He speaks about the young people, yet I see it in all age groups and it’s probably worse for ‘us with more experience’. He says: ‘Today it seems the way of ‘making change’ is to be as judgemental as possible about other people. And that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used a wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Cause you see how woke I was, I called you out.’ I agree it’s not enough to bring about change. We’ve done so much (in our western culture) to teach and encourage people to speak out and given endless platforms to speak out, yet we’re doing very little to teach people to hear one another. Truly hearing one another allows us to feel touched, be moved, reflect on our own thoughts and choose to change vs ignore (get used to it). That girl reminded me I didn’t ‘get used to it all’, I just pushed it aside. I offered nothing in return for her vulnerability. I need to learn how to do more.
I’m uncomfortable writing this. The way I do, the whole thought process. Cause it does feel just full of judgement and I don’t seem to know what to really do with it. How to take it to the next step. How to, tomorrow, use what I’ve seen, heard, felt and learned… Until I do, I’ll end with same words again about the little things that should be easy to do: show that you care, be kind, give a smile… On that note I’m borrowing this from Oscar Wilde: ‘Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.’ Yes, recognize if you too are one of the lucky ones.