CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 24 August 2019

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The empowerment of women and children

There is a rising tide of people power in the world today and it is female power. Women are standing up and speaking out as never before and more people are sitting up and listening to what they have to say. Their message is basic, straightforward and its most important words are: freedom from abuse, equality, justice, education.
 
Across the world, the #MeToo movement is empowering women and girls to stand up and challenge those who have harassed, abused or exploited them. Women themselves are challenging the historical oppression they endured for so long in submissive docility. They are now speaking out, holding their abusers, mostly men, to account and finding the courage to call them out and bring them to justice.
 
It takes bravery, too, to shake of the shackles of slavery and walk free. We are in a new age but the real struggle for the rights and equality of women and children lies ahead. 
 
Jenny, a 14-year-old girl from a poor slum in Manila had very little in this world. The poor are the most vulnerable. She was not well loved at home, feared her strict father and joined a street gang. They introduced her to Juan Gonzales. He appeared to befriend her, gave her money, a cell phone, and new clothes, and brought her to fast food restaurants. 
 
He was grooming her and one day he brought her to a hotel room and sexually violated her. Then, he warned her to tell no one and gave her money. She was confused, shocked and felt guilt and obliged because he paid her.
 
The abuse went on for many months and Jenny was scared and submissive, and wanted to end it and had nowhere to turn. One day in a school seminar, she heard about the rights of girls to be free and self-reliant, and how to report any physical or sexual abuse. She sent a text message. “I want to be free, help me,” it said.
 
Jenny contacted the Preda Foundation charity that helps sexually exploited women and girls. Soon, she was in care and protected from the threats of Gonzales. Jenny had Emotional Release Therapy for weeks. 
 
She poured out her anger and hatred of Gonzales. In time, she grew in self-confidence, was empowered and determined to file a criminal complaint against Gonzales and, with the help of Preda, courageously gave clear powerful testimony against him.
 
A few weeks ago, the court decision was promulgated. He was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt and sentenced to life in prison. Justice was done and many more children will be saved from his abuse. It was made possible by the public awareness and advocacy campaign for the rights of women and children. 
 
We all should be advocates inviting victims to tell their story, listening, believing and helping them. There are many thousands of similar cases like that of Jenny and they can be helped if they are believed, encouraged and supported when they want healing and justice.
 
While many women and girls are fighting back against violence and sexual abuse, many more are unable. It is estimated that 35 per cent of women and girls worldwide have suffered sexual or physical violence from a male. In some countries, research puts that figure at 70 per cent. It causes misery, depression and powerlessness.
 
Where does all begin if not in the home? 
 
It is a vicious circle of violence begetting violence. Those male children who witnessed their mother being beaten by their father or her live-in partner and experienced violence themselves were found to be highly likely to perpetuate violence against women themselves in adult life. 
 
It is what children experience, see and hear from their parents that have the most profound influence on them in later life.   
 
Last March 6, twenty minors, aged between 14- and 17-years-old, were admitted into the Preda home for abused and trafficked girls. They had been rescued from a sex hotel and a resort where foreigners of all nationalities were supplied with trafficked children for their sexual gratification.  Many of the girls had suffered sexual violence. They are now recovering and following the example of Jenny.
 
Think about this: it is reliably estimated that 71 per cent of trafficking victims worldwide are women and girls. Out of every four children trafficked, three of them are girls and the majority of them are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Statistics do tell the truth. When we look at the extent of abuse worldwide, we see a horrific reality.
 
It was established in 2018 that approximately 15 million girls have experienced sexual violence and rape at least once if not more in their lives and nine million of these adolescent girls were sexually assaulted in the past year alone. 
 
Unlike Jenny and the other children in care at Preda, only one per cent ever asked for help. Migrants and refugees in Europe and the United States are also at risk. They need help and protection.
 
Less that 40 per cent of exploited women and children ever seek out help. Most of those who do ask help from teachers, family and friends. Less than 10 per cent of these women and minors asked help from the police.
 
It was not so long ago when abuse of women and children was ignored totally. Now, there are laws to protect them but they are seldom implemented. Local governments give permits to the sex bars and hotels to operate. It’s legalised sexual exploitation.
 
There is much to do to educate society on women and children’s rights and eradicate misogynistic attitudes, and provide genuine help and support for abused women and children everywhere. 
 
May the wave of protest keep rising until the evil is overcome. 
 
 
 
Father Shay Cullen
www.preda.org