Breaking the chains of violence against children

Peru (MNN) — Violence against children is a global issue. UNICEF reports that half of all children under age 18 will experience physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. In Peru, almost 70 percent of young teens say they have experienced violence at home in their lifetimes.

Beth Allen travels to the communities where Food for the Hungry works, to spend time with the families served by the ministry. She says three words have been the theme for transformational work now taking place in Peru.

“Break the chains.”

(Image courtesy of Food for the Hungry)

Beth met with community leaders to discuss critical needs as Food for the Hungry works to end all forms of human poverty. She wasn’t expecting the response she received. “I went in thinking about domestic violence as being only violence between a husband and wife or a man and woman within the household. But my eyes were opened immediately to the problem of family violence or violence from a parent to a child. As I talked to community leaders on that very first day, I heard from all of them that they felt violence against children was actually the number one thing they wanted help with in their community.

“I talked with some mothers who kept bringing up the phrase over and over again, ‘break the chains, break the chains.’ They felt enslaved by this — by the need to hit a child, by the emotional need to feel like that was their only outlet and their only way to discipline.”
Creative Methods of Teaching
Food for the Hungry’s program to help end family violence in Peru begins with the power of community. Peer groups called “cascade groups” of 10 to 12 women are matched with a community leader who has been trained to provide guidance and mentorship.

Allen says working in communities with high rates of illiteracy provided opportunity for creative methods of teaching. “We went to some professional artists and put together a curriculum that doesn’t require the mothers to read. We provide flip charts; the leader mothers use those to do the training — basics in parenting. I asked one mother, ‘Tell me, what was the one most important thing you learned?’ and the mother said, ‘The most important thing I learned is when I feel the anger coming on is just go outside. I learned to just walk outside and stand there for a while until my anger got down and then I wouldn’t be hitting my child. Then I could deal with it and it wouldn’t escalate.’ That’s huge.”

(Image courtesy of Food for the Hungry)

Non-violence training in Peru starts with the basics, focusing first on helping mothers better understand what triggers anger or rage.

Allen says, “Most of the women I talked to told me about feelings of very low self-esteem. Most are single mothers, and they are really struggling. They’re working all day long, and this is an area where many of the moms are traveling an hour and a half to two hours each way to work to find work in wealthier communities — most of them working in domestic work more than anything else. Some of them work as street sweepers, some of them work for the government in low-level custodial jobs. The moms are leaving house at 6 in the morning and don’t get back until 6 or 7 o’clock at night. When they get home, they’re exhausted, and they discover that chores haven’t been done, the kids aren’t doing schoolwork. The mothers get very upset by that. And the mothers said their anger just boils over, they just don’t know what to do with it.”
Trust Leads to Healing
The trust formed within the cascade groups opens the door for ministry to the whole family. Allen says those who are living “on the edge” are provided spiritual, emotional, and physical care by the local church, and prayer is a priority in every group. As the women feel support, many have opened up about their own histories.

Allen continues, “I had several women who talked with me and said, ‘I think I drove off some of my older children because of my anger issues. We don’t have a relationship today, and I’m hoping with my younger children that I don’t make that same mistake.’ And for them to be able to say that with a group of other women and to cry over that and to grieve over that is very powerful — as well to realize they can change. We also continue to pray that those relationships that were broken in the past will be unbroken.”

The mothers aren’t the only ones learning about non-violence in the Food for the Hungry program. Children are now learning healthy parenting guidelines, and are also learning biblical principles on how to honor their parents.

“One mother I talked to said she gets support from her children,” Allen shares. “She confessed one day she got into an argument with her son and started to go the wrong direction. ‘Mom, that’s not what the flip chart says you should be doing right now,’ her son said. His response deescalated the situation, and the mother was very grateful for that.”
A Simple Piece of Paper
(Image courtesy of Food for the Hungry)

Allen says one of the most compelling lessons is taught with a simple piece of paper. “One of the lessons we’re doing with the mothers involves having them think ahead before they react negatively so they understand the damage they are doing,” she shares.

Each mother is given a blank sheet of white paper. They are told to wad the paper up into a small ball. Then they are told to unfold the paper and try to make it flat again.

“Of course, the folds that are in the paper can never be undone. When I asked the mothers what their most powerful lesson was, it was the paper they chose to show because it had really affected them.”

Food for the Hungry’s Violence Prevention and Parenting Skills program has been received so well within Peruvian communities that the ministry is now preparing to introduce it to other countries as well.

Allen says one of the biggest things the Christian community can do is to pray for openness in new communities. “Family violence is something that’s very hidden; people don’t like to talk about it. We were overwhelmed when we went into the communities and heard them bring this up, that they were even to the point of wanting to talk about it because it is something that is often kept so secret. Pray that it will come to light, pray for the resources we need to be able to respond to this, pray for this project to take it more to the international level, pray for resources and people. It takes really special people to do that kind of curriculum writing.”

Another way people can respond is by sponsoring children in Food for the Hungry programs. “All of this is coming out of the sponsorships,” shares Allen. “We’re using that to fund our work in the communities.  And that will help us to take this program to other countries, as well as continue working in Peru.”

Want to learn more about the impact of child sponsorship? Be sure to watch Melany: A Child Sponsorship Story.