Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019. Just before 9am at least six blasts rocked Sri Lanka, killing 259 people and injuring more than 500. Covid-19 is not the first crisis faced by CMS people in mission.
On that tragic Easter morning, suicide bombers had targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels. Any semblance of peace achieved after the 26-year civil war ended in 2009 was destroyed. And at least 45 of the victims were children.
CMS local partner Nevedita and her team were immediately called on to support victims and their families. It was a painful diversion from their already heartbreaking day job, caring for young victims of trauma of a very different kind.
A mental health specialist, Nevedita manages ESCAPE (Eradicating Sexual Child Abuse, Prostitution and Exploitation), a programme of advocacy, intervention and rehabilitation for children traumatised through sexual abuse and exploitation.
ESCAPE is part of the Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Service (LEADS), one of CMS’s key partner organisations in South Asia, where Nevedita has worked since 2001. This meant Nevedita and her team were ideal people to turn to in a crisis.
When I met Nevedita at a conference in South East Asia in 2017, I was struck by her quick smile and sparkling eyes. But she speaks about her work with an authority that comes from honed expertise and hard experience. Her passion, rooted in her love for God, is to see broken children find lasting freedom and healing: “My mission is to show God’s love to children who have been through trauma and abuse. Most children who are referred for assistance have been abused, abandoned at a young age and been through various traumatic situations. All through their lives they may never have had a loving, trustworthy adult. Being an ambassador of God’s love for such children is the greatest difference I would like to make in their lives.”
The need is great
And the need is great, almost overwhelming. It’s only in the last two decades, as taboos have begun to disintegrate, that the prevalence of child sexual exploitation in Sri Lanka and across the world has come to light. A conservative estimate, says LEADS, would indicate that approximately 100 children in Sri Lanka are sexually exploited or abused in a single day. In the capital city, Colombo, it is estimated that one in every three children lives in a violent and abusive home.
Nevedita’s mission to show God’s love to children who have suffered unspeakably is worked out in a number of ways.
First, her child protection team provides residential counselling to young victims. Nevedita says, “we want to be there for a child who is hurting and support them and their family through that painful time”.
They also work on prevention by speaking to children in schools and designing materials to educate children and adults in communities beyond the city. They want to help children understand what appropriate and inappropriate touch is, or alert adults to changes in a child’s behaviour that might indicate they are in trouble. They want to help children keep themselves safe.
Another priority is government advocacy, lobbying on behalf of abused kids and for more safe residential care. Although the government in Sri Lanka is increasingly aware of the extent of child abuse and is putting laws in place to combat the problem, there is still a lack of capacity to provide sufficient safe houses for affected children and families.
Most of the children referred to Nevedita and her team have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused by someone they know – and many by someone to whom they are related. A child’s trust is violated and their sense of safety is shattered. In many cases, when the abuse comes to light, a child is immediately placed in an institution, away from parental custody, and is often referred for psychological intervention because of behavioural problems caused by trauma and separation. Institutionalised, away from their community, it often feels like the child is being punished again.
Nevedita’s vision is for at least one safe home for children and families in every province (of which there are nine), to ensure that sending children to an institution would be the last resort. LEADS have three homes in different locations across the country, one of which is managed in partnership with the state.
Hope on the ground
One mother came to LEADS in desperation, seeking help for herself and her three children. Her eldest daughter, aged nine, had been abused by her father for some time and kept silent by his threats of punishment. The child kept silent, terrified of the consequences of sharing her shame, even with her mother – until she realised he was abusing her four-year-old sister too. With all the courage she could muster, she opened up to her mother and the awful truth spilled out. Her mother immediately took the girls and their seven-year-old brother out of the home, well away from her husband’s reach, and walked straight to the nearest police station. She realised she was leaving everything behind; she had no money, no job, no security and she needed to find a place of protection for herself and her children.
After undergoing medical procedures, the children were separated from their mother by government officials and sent to a Child Development Centre (the kind of institution LEADS sees as a place of absolute last resort). But this mother was determined her children should stay with her.
The family were referred to ESCAPE for counselling initially, but the team also began advocating on their behalf, to make sure the courts understood the children needed to stay with their mother. They needed to convince government officials and provide support to the mother. The entire LEADS team set to work. They found a new school for the children and day care places to allow the kids to be cared for outside of school hours while their mother was working.
They found the family a place to live, gathered together the basic items that would make it a home and the mother found a job to provide for herself and the children. It was a long journey, but finally, with the support of the team at LEADS, the mother and her three children whose lives had been torn apart by abuse were able to begin rebuilding their lives together.
The day job for the child protection team is hard, physically draining and emotionally costly, but its value is almost beyond measure. And all of it was interrupted by a series of explosions on Easter Sunday 2019 that propelled the entire country into a new and familiar chaos.
For the first two months after the bombing, Nevedita and her team focused all their attention on attending to the aftermath. They spent time listening and talking to victims and their families.
They dealt with practical needs, finding necessary medicines or helping people who were confused, frightened and traumatised find their way around overstretched hospitals. They provided play equipment for children, and through playing together were able to give the kids much needed emotional support.
One victim of the attack was a 10-year-old boy, whom the team met at the hospital. His mother had died in the bomb attack and his father was seriously injured. Such were the boy’s injuries that initially he couldn’t be told his mother had died. He suffered terrible burns, meaning he would have to wear a mask over his face for six–eight months. He couldn’t go to school, play outside or simply enjoy the sunshine. Life and hope seemed shattered. For many weeks Nevedita worked with him, helping him adjust to an impossible new normal.
And the team were far from immune to the horror. As experienced as they are in dealing with trauma, the bomb triggered memories of war for them just as for many others, and increased anxiety in carrying out even the simple tasks of life. In September, 110 staff participated in a debrief programme to help them reflect and process the experience, funded by a grant from CMS.
A year on…
A year on, Sri Lanka is recovering. The team have moved past the impact of the bomb. Nevedita says, their “resilience is high because of the war”.
LEADS’s work with schools is almost done and the Catholic church have taken responsibility for continuing the work with affected families through local parishes.
The boy was placed permanently with his mother’s sister, who cares for him as if he were her own. Happily, his father is now well enough to take care of him and his little brother at weekends. The boy still has to safeguard his sensitive skin and hasn’t yet talked much about his mother. These are still early days, but the family is fortunate, says Nevedita – they have a good support system. That, as she knows only too well, is a blessing many other families do not have.
Back on the frontline, Nevedita continues to be busy, overseeing the work with traumatised children, with an increased focus on training and caring for staff who are looking after children. She says it’s time to “pass on experience and build capacity, so that the work will be more effective”.
Often, when faced with the incredible challenges of her work, she recalls Isaiah 58:6 to express the response of her heart. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” She says, with a smile, “Some days are stressful, but most days I don’t know what else I’d do.”