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Girls & Women

Finding peace and love at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence

Shantanu Starick

My apprenticeship with Global Citizen Year in Ecuador has one job description: to be loving and forgiving towards children who are victims of domestic violence. Put like that, it sounds so simple, right?

In Ecuador, and in many other countries including the United States, domestic violence is an enormously intricate social problem. In Ecuador specifically, domestic violence is generally perpetrated by men, and is caused by a number of social factors including the country's high rate of alcoholism among men especially, a woman's often complete financial dependence on her parents or husband, and the high rate of teen pregnancy.

The biggest factor, however, is machismo, the culture of men subordinating women. Machismo is prominent throughout Ecuador in the places that I have visited and my friends have lived in, and it is especially strong in rural communities and families with low education. Under strong machismo, women are always at fault in a rape situation, and men don't have any blame in the case of an affair. In one community I lived in, men are expected to abuse, rape, and catcall women because the community believed men are animals and can't help themselves. Because of machismo culture, domestic violence is accepted in many parts of Ecuador, and women who fight back or want to escape are often looked down upon by their friends and family. Of course, just like any other country, this does not apply to everybody and there are families who shun men if they hit their wife or kids. Domestic violence is an incredibly complex social issue, and while there is no magic fix, the Ecuadorian Government has implemented laws and programs that protect women’s rights in the case of domestic violence and/or abuse.

This year I am working at a Casa de Acogida, a shelter for women and children who have escaped from violent households. These families are from all over Ecuador and Colombia.  Some come with suitcases packed with family history and valuables, others arrive with only the clothes they are wearing. Some stay for one night, others stay for years. All of the people who pass through benefit from the safe, private space where they can begin the process of healing.

While each family is unique, there are some general trends among where they come from. Many women are from low income households and have not finished high school. Many arrive without a single cent to their name. Some have been abused by their husbands or partners, others by their parents. Some women have multiple kids, each with a different father, creating rivalries between siblings. All women have been either verbally, sexually, emotionally, financially or physically abused, or they have suffered from a combination. The children are often abused in similar ways by both parents, have seen this abuse, or have participated in it against their moms and/or siblings. All of the moms fear for their children’s well being.

I specifically work with the kids, who range in age from 2 days old to 12 years old. I help with homework, create and teach art projects, lead 10 minute yoga classes and supervise playground time; but mostly I give and receive hugs and kisses and struggle to appropriately reprimand the kids when they hit each other (happens daily) or when they bite me (happened yesterday…and that wasn’t the first time).

These kids have heartbreaking stories that no doubt contributed to their unique behavioral and developmental issues. The problem is: how do you punish a child for hitting his friend when his parents have hit him his whole life? And while I mull over this question, two kids start crying, one paints her lips with semi-washable paint, and one pees herself.

Dealing with the behavioral issues isn’t the hardest part, though. It’s watching the kids, who each claim a piece of my heart, leave under tough circumstances. Some go back with their moms to live with their aggressors, some leave but have nowhere to go, and some have mentally ill mothers. I have learned that living with and being the victim of violence is exhausting and erodes self confidence, sense of safety, and self image.

A little over three months ago, I cried myself to sleep two nights in a row because two kids–kids I played with, ate with, hugged goodbye every night–left under these types of situations. I can still clearly hear one’s guttural sob as he hugged goodbye to his friends.

At that time, I wondered if working at this shelter was emotionally sustainable, if I would ever see a success story. Pouring all my energy into loving and forgiving these kids didn’t seem worth it if I would watch them all leave with 95% certainty that their lives would be extremely difficult.

Two months ago, a group of women left around the same time to start separate lives of their own. I was sad to see the kids go, especially since I was hesitant to believe they would be ok. But I’ve seen two of the women outside of the shelter, and both are doing really well! I see two of the kids frequently, and I can’t help but grin like crazy as they run towards me yelling “CHARLOTTE!!!!!” while spilling their snack (usually granola) all over the road.

Knowing that there are success stories makes it easier for me to breathe when a child bites me. It makes me cherish the moments when I get an unexpected hug, or when I hear a child’s insanely high pitched “stop tickling me” laugh. I look forward to work because even though I know it will be exhausting and exasperating, I also know that there will be small moments that will make it all worthwhile.

One of these moments happened a month ago when a child who had recently arrived gave me a bracelet. It is one of the multicolored, plastic friendship bracelets that all the cool kids (or the kids who have 6 cents to spend on luxuries for themselves) seem to have. Each bracelet has a message written on it. This child’s entire forearm was covered in these bracelets, and without looking she pulled one off and handed it to me. On it was written “Paz y Amor.”

Peace and Love.

Now I wear this bracelet all the time as a constant reminder of all that my fulfilling, exhausting and rewarding apprenticeship stands for. Each time I glanced down at my wrist, my heart swells with gratitude.

This article was written by Charlotte Robbins, a 2016 Global Citizen Year Fellow living in Ecuador. Read more about Charlotte's experiences with her apprenticeship and homestay during her bridge year on her blog.

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