They look beautiful – dressed in bright tops they caught my eye. They are sisters, just two years different in age, like my daughters. The older one is 15, the younger just 13. The 13 year old moved out of home a little while ago and was living with her 35 year old ‘boyfriend’. Quite recently she had an abortion. She’s living back at home, in the one room her family have. In that home the sisters share a bed with their mum and her boyfriend.
At the other end of the room two girls sit quietly at a table. At first we thought they were boys who had wandered into this ‘day camp’ for vulnerable girls. They look about 16 years old. In fact they are 23, and have been brought up in an orphanage. The leaders of the camp think that they now live on the streets.
In Moldova one third of children are classified as ‘social orphans’. These children may or may not have living parents, but they are without any adults who care for them properly. Apparently the most usual home situations for social orphas are parents working in another country or alcoholic parents. When children are social orphans they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This applies whether they are boys or girls. There has been an increase in sex tourism to Moldova, particularly of men looking for boys.
Today 44 girls came to the day camp. Many were brought by the workers at the day centres from their villages. Others came through contact with the local orphanage. They ranged from 12 – 23, but none looked older than about 16. The aim of the day was to affirm their value and their worth, and this was communicated through talks, craft, a spa session and photo booth opportunities, along with games and good food. Watching them relax throughout the day was amazing. To see girls who were clearly uncomfortable having their photo taken at 10am, pick up a pink glittery top hat and wear it for fun later in the day, was wonderful. As I massaged their hands and arms I saw the marks of self harm and abuse on their skin, but as they drank their berry smoothies ( very few of them would have access to fresh fruit or vegetables at this time of year), showed off their clean and polished nails, and sat whilst their faces were massaged and face masks applied, they were just like any group of teenage girls. Laughing, teasing each other, calling their friends to try the treatment they’d just enjoyed.
By affirming their value through words and actions, and through specific teaching on manipulation, how to run away from danger and how to say no, the programme hopes to provide these girls with an alternative to being 15, pregnant and married to an alcoholic older man who beats them. That’s not me being dramatic. Those are the words of the pragmatic and unemotional field worker.
Today as I travelled home on the minibus I sat looking at the sunset feeling content. Today I massaged the hands of 10 girls. I chopped vegetables to feed 44. It wasn’t everything but it was something.
I think my contentment was born from knowing that there does not need to be a hopelessness about the scale of the problems I’ve seen this week. I know that the issues of poverty and corruption, abuse and exploitation cannot be solved in one lifetime. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to do the little that we can do. There is always a place to start, and for all of us that place will be different.For me the start has been to come to this country, meet people, go into their homes, massage their skin and hear their stories. And I know there will be the next step and the one after that. I came to Moldova wanting to know more about the world I live in and the people who share my humanity. I’ve learned so much and have been inspired and enriched by all those I’ve met. I’ve been challenged again about western notions of need and greed. I’ve been refreshed by the change of pace and the unimportance of my own life and happenings. I’ve written these blog posts to encourage and inform, and to serve as a reminder to me of how I want to be. I hope you’ve found them of interest. I hope that you too can find a way to believe that hopelessness is not the answer to the problems in our world, and that you find your own place to begin.