My past three months in Cape Town South Africa and Rajasthan India have been some of the most incredible, memorable, and challenging moments of my fellowship year.
During my month in India I encountered new challenges, a new culture, new ways of life, and a new reality for my project as I shadowed the work at an international NGO and their projects in the city of Udaipur and the rural villages of Rajasthan.
I spent a lot of time with women and children in the only domestic violence safe house in the Udaipur region.
I participated in leadership, social, and team building activities at a school for children with hearing challenges and other special needs.
I traveled into the rural villages of Rajasthan where I explored women’s empowerment programs and the Women’s Resource Center where women leaders help other women and families with issues ranging from domestic violence and family problems to accusations of witchcraft.
I then traveled to Cape Town, South Africa.
In Cape Town South Africa I began my project with a focus on children who have experienced different forms of trauma.
I observed the services at a local government hospital for children with physical disabilities.
I also explored a variety of different services and programs at a school for children with hearing challenges.
For my last few weeks in Cape Town I have now been refocusing my project back to family abuse and family violence as I spend time shadowing Magistrates in Children’s Court, Domestic Violence Protection Order Court, and Domestic Violence Criminal Court.
All of these different experiences have inspired similar questions about different kinds of responsibility: institutional responsibility, cultural responsibility, organizational responsibility, societal responsibility, and personal responsibility.
I have learned that domestic violence, child abuse, and child trauma are phenomena that are deeply influenced by cultural and societal systems, norms, morals, and values.
In different communities in India I found that the cultural and religious norms and traditions had a profound influence on how women and children conceptualized abuse, experienced abuse, and how they approached addressing their experiences of abuse.
In the cities and rural villages of Rajasthan I found that there was a high level of stigma around abuse, trauma, and violence. Many victims felt embarrassed and ashamed of their experiences and others normalized their abuse as a usual part of a relationship.
This mindset led many victims to approach abuse as something that should not and could not be acknowledged nor addressed.
At the village level many women experiencing domestic violence felt that they couldn’t and shouldn’t live independently, they couldn’t approach the local police (because of both fear and financial reasons) and they couldn’t approach the local panchayat (the village governing body) because these services and institutions are known to be corrupt, treat women badly, and they are known to not help women with issues of domestic violence or abuse within the family.
Because of this many women believed that they only had two realistic options for addressing their abuse: to not address the abuse at all and stay with their husbands or to leave their husbands and live with their parents. Most women who experienced abuse didn’t believe that it was culturally appropriate nor overall feasible to live on their own and independently raise their children. Also, because of financial struggles and the cultural stigma associated with leaving their husbands many women didn’t even see leaving their husband as an option; rather, they believed that they must accept the abuse, cope with the effects of the abuse, and ultimately stay with their abuser.
This discourse also seems to both affect and be affected by all aspects of society with how the government institutions, local police, village institutions, and societal institutions offer little to no help for abuse victims.
After spending time with organizations and government institutions, I began to learn how these ideas influenced how different laws, services, and programs approached addressing abuse.
Questions about institutional responsibility whirled through my mind as I saw the grim reality of domestic violence and child abuse in parts of India and South Africa.
In a society where 8 out of 10 women report experiencing domestic violence and statistics suggest that a woman is raped every twenty minutes, I was surprised to see the lack of services and programs available to help abuse victims in India.
Families both in the cities and the villages complained that the government institutions, legal systems, and government services were often corrupt and biased to the extent that they were completely inaccessible. I heard stories about how the police would charge ridiculous fees to investigate domestic violence claims and that they ultimately treated female victims with such a level of disrespect that victims became fearful of utilizing the help of the law enforcement agencies that are supposed to serve and protect them. I heard stories about how the completely male-dominated panchayat would have rules for how women can attend and participate in their meetings; how the panchayat members would be under the influence of drugs or alcohol during meetings; and how the members would mock, ridicule, and further abuse the women who were seeking help.
While working with different programs and services I also encountered questions of individual staff responsibility as I wondered about the individual staff members’ roles and responsibilities in addressing abuse not only through their services and organizations but also in the larger community and society.
From observing and participating in services, I often found that staff were overwhelmed with their client’s realities. Many women, children, and families were experiencing a variety of issues and challenges that needed the assistance of several different services and programs.
Often staff were also overwhelmed by how their services were falling short of the organization’s vision and plan.
I witnessed and heard staff complaints about the low quality of the children’s hospital school, the inadequate medical and rehabilitation services for the children, and the lack of access to toys and games that could help keep the children healthy, social, active, and in positive spirits.
In Cape Town I heard cases of domestic violence protection orders where the police interfered with evidence, refused to arrest perpetrators when they violated a protection order, did not make a reasonable effort to serve the respondent with the court documents, and inaccurately informed protected persons that their protection orders were no longer in effect and were “out of date.”
In India the women leaders of the Resource Center were frustrated that they didn’t have the resources to be able to easily travel to and effectively communicate with their clients. They were also upset that they didn’t have the support and assistance to help their clients navigate and challenge the patriarchal nature of the government, local institutions, and family structures.
At the domestic violence safe house in India I was disappointed to find that the women and children didn’t have the level of counseling, support, or services that they needed. Despite a vision and plan to provide educational training, occupational training, and a variety of different counseling services, day after day I found that the women mainly spent their time sitting and laying in the courtyard. There also didn’t seem to be any educational or counseling services to help the young children at the shelter. After talking to staff and volunteers, I learned that they didn’t have these services because of staff problems coupled with a lack of resources.
At the school in Cape Town many staff were frustrated with the limited counseling services and the limitations of the hostel. They believed that with more services the children would be able to better overcome the challenges that they face as a result of their disabilities and their experiences with abuse and trauma.
Through these experiences I have seen that progress and improvement in organizations, services and communities all have one thing in common: dedicated, passionate, and hard working staff.
Because of the dedication and passion of hardworking volunteers and staff, Mosaic in Cape Town has transformed to become an organization that helps with a variety of issues in a variety of different ways in many different communities. Mosaic started their programs by selecting staff from within the communities and then training the staff to return to their communities and learn about and address a variety of issues through direct service. Mosaic staff have then grown and established different programs that that help to provide support services, counseling services, training, educational forums, and awareness for a myriad of different social problems and issues.
In India I learned how the NGO has developed to address issues of women empowerment, domestic violence, and educational and financial problems in villages and cities over time. With the help of dedicated staff and volunteers, the women’s empowerment workshops and women’s resource centers have grown and will continue to grow and expand to new villages.
Overall, I observed that the programs that were continuing to successfully grow and evolve had staff who continuously reflected and challenged their approaches, services, and programs.
Because of this I believe that an essential part of progress, growth, and change is to inspire and empower our staff to accept responsibility for being a part of the growth of their programs and services and progress within society. We must support and encourage our volunteers to challenge and take action to improve our systems, institutions, norms, ideas, and practices.
I also have learned that acknowledging personal responsibility is very important.
In order to be able to help their clients to the best of their abilities I have learned that staff must understand their own preconceptions and experiences with abuse. In order to better help their clients, staff must first “heal the healer” and learn how to overcome their own experiences with abuse, biases, and preconceptions.
I also believe that abuse victims themselves must understand and accept personal responsibility.
I have found that many discourses around abuse place all responsibility with the abuser, society, and the culture. I believe that not acknowledging the victim’s role can be disempowering to abuse victims because it perpetuates the idea that they are helpless victims.
Because of this I found Mosaic’s approach of victim empowerment focused on the victim’s role in her own abusive situation to be both important and refreshing. Mosaic counselors believe that in order to be able to address the effects of abuse and to try to prevent the unhealthy dynamics that can lead to their clients having abusive relationships in the future, their clients need to understand and accept personal responsibility. These programs and services are therefore focused on having women acknowledge that they have power within an abusive relationship and that they specifically have power over how they react and the decisions that they make in their current and future relationships.
I also have learned that we all have to accept personal responsibility to challenge and change our societal discourses around abuse.
Once we accept personal responsibility, we then can start to participate in meaningful conversations to better help how we address abuse.
I have seen in both India and South Africa how through advocacy campaigns, education, and community discussions communities have begun to break down the barriers that keep these issues unaddressed.
My experiences have also further supported my belief that education is not only essential to hep victims overcome their experiences of abuse but that education is also important to improve how our society and future generations approach helping children and families in need.
I have seen how youth programs, women empowerment programs, and everyday classrooms can help address how we conceptualize families and relationships.
In Cape Town I have spent time with an organization that has a powerful educational and awareness campaign focused on preventing and addressing abuse by teaching men how to have more involved and healthy roles in the lives of their children and partners.
I have seen how empowerment programs in India have taught women and girls to become independent and demand the respect, treatment, and opportunities that they want and deserve.
I believe that through education we can take responsibility for our roles in addressing abuse in society and that we can learn to acknowledge and change our preconceived notions and ideas about domestic violence, abuse, family structure, and family problems.
We have the responsibility to teach our youth and to work to improve how every aspect of our societies and communities address abuse. We have the responsibility to reflect and change how our cultural norms, religious values, societal practices, and institutional structures affect the experience of domestic violence and child abuse in our communities, how we currently help, and ultimately how we can better help.
I believe that it is important to acknowledge the role and responsibilities that all parts of society have in a victim’s experience of abuse: from the victim’s own personal responsibility to institutional and cultural responsibility.
We must also acknowledge and accept our responsibility and role as change agents so that we will be able to achieve progress in how our laws, governments, cultures, organizations, and communities approach and address abuse.
Throughout my journey I have become more confident in my role as a change agent as I look forward to continuing to learn and to help abuse victims in need.
I hope to return home and continue to learn and to take action to change how the United States’ culture, government, legal systems, and social welfare systems approach helping children and families who have experienced abuse or trauma.
I believe that changes in the United States system will also lead to international changes. I have seen throughout my travels that so many different systems and services model their practices and laws on those in the United States. Therefore, by creating change in and establishing a solid and improved model in the United States that is focused on continuous growth, progress, and increased services and support, I hope that this model will then have a further positive influence on developing systems around the world.
With the end of my fellowship year on the horizon, I am excited to begin my next journey at home.
I know that I will be returning home as a transformed person.
I have grown in confidence and strength and as I have learned to trust myself.
On the plane ride to South Africa I realized that for the first time in my fellowship year I was neither anxious nor concerned about my new destination. My usual thoughts of self-doubt and fear were not prominent thoughts in my mind; rather, I had thoughts of excitement and a yearning to learn and to explore. For the first time during my travels I felt a new sense of confidence where I trusted my ability to be able to adapt and overcome any challenge that I would encounter on this new part of my journey.
I also am continuing to learn more about myself, other people, and the world.
I have made many new friends, new mentors, and new family in India and South Africa.
I am continuing to learn how my different identities affect how I think, how I act, and the way that I am perceived by different people and different cultures.
I am learning more about privilege and how my realities and experiences affect my interactions with myself, other people, and the environments around me.
I have explored my role as an outsider examining different cultures and societies as I traveled as a noticeably foreign woman for the first time in my travel year while exploring India.
I also have learned about the vulnerabilities and dangers of traveling as a young, single woman as I overcame potentially dangerous and uncomfortable situations.
These past three months have been particularly transformative as I have continued my journey of self acceptance and personal growth.
I have painfully examined, acknowledged, and am in the process of addressing unhealthy dynamics and relationships in my life.
I have learned to recognize and take action against unhealthy dynamics in my life.
I have been able to recognize that I have relationships with family and loved ones that can at times be incredibly unhealthy as they inappropriately criticize me and belittle me as a reaction to their own stress and anger.
Since I have seen how these dynamics are extremely dangerous and threatening to my personal health, wellbeing, and progress I am finally making an effort to stand up for myself. I hope that when I return home I will continue to be able to positively address these unhealthy dynamics and work toward continuing to repair my relationship with myself and others.
I have also continued to learn how to confront my issues and problems from my past as I focus on learning from the past, leaving the past behind, and embracing the present moment and the future.
In the last three months I have established a sense of closure with past relationships where I was able to listen to my heart and my mind while effectively communicating my thoughts and feelings to myself and my loved ones.
In doing so I am learning how to embrace moments of vulnerability as opportunities to grow, to learn, and to become stronger.
I am learning how to make myself my first priority as I grow to understand how to balance my needs and the needs of others.
I am learning how to embrace failure and rejection in a healthy way.
I am learning how to proudly and unapologetically accept myself for who I am and to expose my entire self to the world and the people around me.
I am learning to accept and learn from my strengths, my faults, my imperfections, and my quirks.
I am exploring my fears and my interests with new adventures including skydiving, completing the highest bridge bungee jump in the world, a desert camel safari, a big five game safari, riding a camel and an ostrich, shark cage diving, cave exploration, learning how to surf, and becoming a healthier person physically and emotionally.
I am learning how to take more risks, be more spontaneous, and live in the moment rather than spending too much of my time and energy planning the future.
I have been developing a new outlook on how to approach my life, where I am learning how to balance proactivity and reactivity in a healthy way that allows me to continue to strive for what I want while learning how to embrace the current moment and relinquishing some control.
I have learned to accept a new level of responsibility over myself and my life.
I have learned that I am responsible for how I react to things and how different situations and experiences affect me.
I have learned that I am responsible for my journey in life and for my own happiness.
I have realized that it is up to me to live the life that I want to live and to chase and achieve all of my goals, wishes, and dreams.
I know that this journey has undoubtedly changed me. And I hope that I will be able to overcome the challenges that await me at home, remember and embrace what I have learned throughout my journey, and have the strength to continue to progress, learn, and grow.