And yet these kids, still too young to understand their sexuality, and what was made of it... are all victims of the worst possible crime against them: Sexual abuse. The most painful part of it all is knowing their predators weren't strangers. They were their fathers, stepfathers, uncles, neighbours. The furthest removed was a teacher. It is sadly not uncommon for a household with 2 sisters for the elder child to be abused first, and closely followed by the younger sister.
"Family" is a word we have personally chosen for our residence, just outside of central Ho Chi Minh City, operating for many years now to find and bring home girls who have had to go through humanity's worst crime. We give her a chance to move on from her past with appropriate care, the chance to go to school, to have vocational training. And when she is old enough, we as a Family help her find the most appropriate and rewarding career so that she can stand on her own two feet.
Our youngest girls may not have fully recovered from their mental anguish, despite not fully understanding the absolute magnitude of what has happened to them. All we can do is help them be at peace as best we can, so that we can take those tiny steps forward to developing these girls into beautiful, strong, women.
"Shelter" is the a more generic term which we try to avoid. It talks about a place that although helps many girls from poor backgrounds, from domestic abuse, and even from sexual abuse...But it lacks the warmth of a "Family".
In our family, we have a house mother that makes sure every thing is in its place, and everyone is well cared for. We have a chef who cooks for our girls, and her husband, who drives the girls to school, to church or other appointments. Our family also welcomes volunteers, who all come from areas of expertise: teachers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers....etc.
90% of the survivors of sexual abuse that we welcome to our family are girls. Young girls. The remaining 10% are young boys, however I would like to discuss that in a future piece.
In our family, there are girls from 3 to 15 years old. There are those who have completed vocational school and go to work but still stay in the family to take care of the youngers. This is a home to raise the children and let them go to school ... FREE
A cycle of abuse. From his daughter, to his granddaughter.
Somewhere not so far away, out in province A, two sisters were ruthlessly raped by their father, the elder sister being subjected to the animal acts when she turned 12. Their mother had passed away years before, and the father became an alcoholic. The three of them lived in a makeshift tent, in the adjacent garden of a kind-hearted person. At nights, all three would sleep in a hammock.
The alcohol impaired my mind, he claims. The alcohol made everything fuzzy, like it was a distant dream. The first time happened when he was blind drunk. A man so far in a drunken stupor that he didn't realize the female body lying next to his was that of his own daughter. And once it was already too late, he continues to reflect....the impoverished lifestyle he lead that had caused him so much grief and suffering lead him to become a demonic version of himself. Spiteful and unforgiving. Just close your eyes and do it. Afterall, you are already at the bottom of the food chain, there is nothing else for you to lose. Why not satisfy that sexual urge, when they are right there lying next to you.
She was only in the 8th grade when she fell pregnant. Shrouded by secrecy, he lead his eldest daughter to immediately get an abortion. But secrets find their way out, and within that year, our Family found her, and got her out.
But despite living with a Family that show her real love, real relationships, real life...a life far away from her animal father, with a chance to go to school and build her life to be what she wants to be, her story isn't a fairy tale ending. Her school complained of her poor grades. They complained that she would sit and daydream, and ask to go home....home to her sister. She missed her younger sibling. She worried for her. After all, despite the monstrous acts he had committed, he was still at home in his makeshift tent, spending each night with his younger daughter.
She begged and pleaded until we finally let her go home. Only 3 days later, she was back at our door. Please, can we bring my sister here too? she cried. And so more secrets came out. Still an alcoholic, both sisters were now subjected to his drunken rage. They would be beaten, starved, tortured....all a precursor to the rape that they would eventually face. But their young and innocent minds, still in despair from losing their mother so early in life, could not bring themselves to share their full story. They couldn't make a full statement to the police questioning the heinous crime. I was afraid, the elder sister tells us, many years on. I was afraid they'd put him in jail forever. If that happened, how could the two of us survive? It never occurred to her, that even jail was too good for her father. A man whose depravity only made him worthy to be alligator bait.
Even when it was just the two sisters now living together in their tent, she still harbored in intolerant feeling of torment...that she had committed a crime by sending her father to prison. She didn't realize that her compassion towards him would be wasted...that when she returned to go back to school with the Family that he would be released, and his blackened soul would lead him right back to commit the same depravity towards her younger sister, still living in the tent.
Each child has a separate box with her name on it. Each person writes to the other a blessing or a reminding and put into the box.
This is the comment of the Mother to one child. (We have the permission of that child to public that note)
Our House Mother, together with a full team, made the trek out to Province A. Whatever it took, they were not leaving without the younger sister.
But it was not an easy transition for the younger girl. The years of abuse had left her with pent up anger. She ran with the wrong circle of friends. Her outlook on life was negative. She wanted revenge for everything that had ever happened to her. She blamed her older sister for leaving her...you knew what he was like. You knew, and you left me there with him! How were we going to help her get through her anger issues? Could you blame her for them?
And what of the father? I'm sorry, but there are no words....I have no words that could possibly describe this man that makes everyone lose faith in humanity.
Our story doesn't get any closer to a fairy tale ending.
Despite coming to live with the Family, the younger sister simply could not adapt. She didn't want to go to school. She didn't want to pick up vocational training. This new living environment was so far removed from anything that she had ever known...and eventually she asked to go back to her Province. We had to let her go, and at the age of 16, she gave birth to a child, with another teenage boy in her same village.
The cycle continued. A child barely 2 years old and already at the abuse of her so-called grandfather. It was in the dead of the night when we got the call. Immediately we piled into our van and drove out over 100kms to pick up the younger sister and her baby.
She's only 3 years old now, the baby. Officially, the younger sister has given all legal guardianship to her elder sister to care for the baby. Both sisters know the best place for this child is with us, as far away from the 'grandfater' as possible. The baby's mother is now only 19 years old, a lost soul with no direction in life, and little regard to her daughter's well being.
You might be wondering...if she was abused from a young age, why did she keep living with her father?
It's a fair question, but is complicated and can be answered in layers. She didn't have an education. A job. Or any kind of method to support herself, or even feed herself, along with the tangled feelings of staying close to the only adult in her life: Her father.
It's the sad reality that many victims of abuse face. Her abuse lead to feelings of self-loathing, inferiority complex, and little motivation to change anything.
Our House mother tells us: We don't have much. Just the ability and compassion to care for these children, to provide them an education...only an education can provide them with the best possible future for them. We let them study to the best of their abilities -- that includes university, post-graduate studies, and maybe even beyond that. After they graduate and find a job, we'll still be here to support them for the first 6 months, before we let them fly on their own, while we continue to care for any new children we may have welcomed.
Getting rid of 'misfortune' and bad luck....by taking a girl's virginity.
There are a few girls in our family that were raped by their biological fathers...and not because he was blind drunk, not that that is an acceptable excuse. Instead, these 'men' actively wait until what they feel is the right time to 'cleanse' themselves of the bad luck and misfortune, by taking their own daughter's virginity.
She was only 8 or 9 when this happened. It was a while before her family found out, and in this case, immediately put the perpetrator behind bars. And even more of a blow...instead of paternal grandparents stepping up and accepting some form of responsibility, or some form of support for the child, they instead went on a vengeful hunt, harassing the child's maternal family and blaming them for the imprisonment of their son. Ever since he's been in jail though, mother, daughter and son no longer have any links or ties with the father or his family.
In the whole two years that she was repeatedly raped, no one in her family knew. All they could see was a young girl becoming more and more withdrawn into herself, scared, and sensitive to physical touch.
The children are practing a dance for the school performance. The Mother is on the right.
When she came to live with us, she required therapy and counselling for many months. Every afternoon, she would be driven into the city for a session. With two years of hideous abuse to work through, it took a long time to face her demons and take that first precious step forward. The following three years have seen her grow into a beautiful young woman, with career goals, and future dreams. Our House Mother speaks about her with tears of pride welling in her eyes: She is exactly the big sister that every other girl in this house needs.
You might be wondering: how could the mother ever allow for this to happen to her own daughter?
Sometimes there are no reasons. There are no signs. There are no clues, or signs. There is no way to tell of the horrible things happening under your nose, and the disgusting and selfish things that occurred in that household can only be blamed on one personal alone.
The father was addicted to football. He loved to place bets. And this time, he lost 1 billion Vietnam Dong, a figure that many years ago held incredible value. It was his friends that put the idea in his head. Take a girl's virginity! That should end your bad luck!
With no money to pay back what would be a never-ending debt....with nothing further to lose... he chose first-born to end his bad luck. His daughter.
He currently sits in prison, rotting away for his crime. But it's not long enough. No amount of time in prison is long enough. Mother and daughter, for now, live as much of a normal life as they possibly can, but they both fear the day when the announcement is made. He has been released.
Pictures taken by Phạm An/ Trí Thức Trẻ
Translated by Jacqueline Huynh. The original version in Vietnamese entitled "Những Đứa Trẻ Bị Xâm Hại (Kỳ 1): 'Con Không Muốn Khai Vì Sợ Làm Cha Nặng Tội'"