‘Emerge’ing From The Dark Therapy Through Jewellery Making
By Maryam Azwer
Picture Courtesy Emerge Global
When news reports are so full of horror stories highlighting abuse, violence and harassment that women in our country face almost every day, it isn’t easy not to feel shocked, and perhaps even angry at a system which allows these nightmares to continue.
All of us like to talk about it, some of us want to create awareness about it – few of us take the next step towards doing something about it. Undoing the injustice may be impossible, but there are still many other ways to help women who have faced abuse.
This is what a young American, Alia Whitney-Johnson, discovered when she visited Sri Lanka in 2005.
“When I was 19, just after my Freshman year at MIT, I traveled to Sri Lanka on a tsunami relief trip. An engineer in training, I was eager to put some of my technical know-how to work. At the time, I never imagined that it would be the challenges that needed human solutions, not technical ones, [that] would call me,” said Alia.
Alia’s tsunami relief and other social work in Sri Lanka led her to a home for teenage mothers who had survived rape and incest, on behalf of whom she was asked to write a fund-raising letter.
“I will never forget the first day that I visited that home. 18 girls stood there waiting to greet me, some as young as ten years old, nursing babies and holding toddlers. I remember scanning their faces, not knowing how to hold my own. I was only a few years older than some of them and yet could barely imagine how much they had been through. I was overwhelmed by their situation and yet in admiration of their courage – they were testifying in court, often against fathers or brothers, fighting for safety for their little sisters and for a better country for other girls. But despite their similar backgrounds and the strength that they shared in common, I felt there was a lack of community in the home. Some of the girls would not talk or work together,” she said.
In trying to befriend these girls and help them in whatever way she could, Alia realised that, since she did not speak Sinhalese, she had to find “a creative way to get to know them.”
Having enjoyed creating jewellery since she was seven, Alia introduced these girls to beading and jewellery making – an exercise that soon proved to be therapeutic, and helped the girls open up. After seeing these girls “emerge into who they wanted to be”, despite their troubled pasts, Alia went on to establish Emerge Global in 2008, with the aim of helping girls who have been victims of sexual abuse.
“We believe that by equipping these girls with the tools that they need to lead healthy, self-sufficient lives and to become leaders in their communities that we can build a movement where these young women will end abuse in their spheres of influence,” she said.
Today, ‘Beads-to-Business’, a programme initiated by the Emerge Lanka Foundation, educates these girls on both jewellery making and business skills, both as a means of helping them recover from abuse, and to prepare for their own futures.
Amanda Van Dort, who is currently Country Director of the Emerge Lanka Foundation, believes that one of the best ways to help these young girls and women is through empowerment.
“Emerge isn’t about sob stories, it’s about empowerment. We believe that every girl can ‘emerge’ into who they were supposed to be in spite of situational hardships,” she said.
“We work with girls 10-18 years old, who are survivors of sexual assault or abuse, many of which are teenage mothers, as a result of incest from a family member. They have been placed in shelters for their protection for the duration of their court case, and denied access to schooling,” said Amanda, adding that “Apart from the initial abuse, many of the girls are experiencing high levels of depression, suicidal inclinations and post-traumatic stress. Emerge aims to empower the girls with life skills and savings generated from Beads-to-Business, in which jewellery is used as a practical teaching tool,” she said.
Amanda explained that Emerge works with the Department of Probation and Child Care Services, who refer them to shelters under their supervision. “We continue to keep in touch with the girls after they leave the shelter to connect them with jobs and other helpful resources. Although the three shelters we work with are in the Western Province, the victims are from all over Sri Lanka. We are learning that child rape is increasingly prevalent all over Sri Lanka, more recently the East has been cited with alarming numbers,” said Amanda.Apart from the ‘Beads-to-Business’ concept, Emerge also provides Mentorship and Life Skills training programmes.
“For me this is an unmatched experience. It’s amazing to be a part of a girl’s life through the sharing of knowledge, love and experiences,” said Amanda. Emerge most recently teamed up with Miss Universe Sri Lanka 2011, Stephanie Siriwardhana, and is also on the look out for more volunteers and donors. The foundation can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org