By Alejandra Kaiser
Paul* (16), the oldest of four, lives in a house in an uncle’s backyard in Lima, Perú, with his mother, Marcela, and three siblings, Ana (13), Lucy (9) and Gabo (3). The house, made of prefabricated material, is smaller than their previous one and didn’t even have a proper bathroom at first. But Paul and his sisters feel safer here, especially since they don’t live with their father anymore.
For years, the children witnessed their father constantly humiliate and mistreat their mother. In 2018, Marcela found out that he had sexually abused Ana, while she was away at work. Paul felt guilty. As the oldest brother, he felt he should have protected his sister.
SOS Children’s Villages Perú guided Marcela to file a police report and arranged a place for the family to live in. But the traumatic experience left wounds too deep for the family to heal on their own.
“Paul tried to kill himself,” says Marcela, seated in her home surrounded by photos of her children. “He had depression and anxiety. Ana was afraid and the girls constantly got sick. The little one had language issues. I was fearful and I didn’t know how to help my children.”
More than 80% of children in Perú have been victims of violence in their homes and more than half of the cases reported in 2018 were related to physical and/ or sexual violence from their parents, according to the National Survey of Social Relations of Perú.
Unfortunately, despite the alarming rates, the toll of the mental and emotional trauma brought on by domestic violence, is often overlooked.
Children in families that face adversity are almost twice as much at risk to have a mental health diagnosis compared to children from average households, according to mental health experts. To have self-reliant and independent adults – and break the cycle of violence - society need to address the trauma they have experienced.
Across Latin America, SOS Children’s Villages supports the mental health of children in families in various ways. From a Social Circus classes and dance in Brazil to workshops in Nicaragua and Peru that teach positive masculinity to fathers.
“Each national association has different approaches, based on local realities and needs,” says Maricruz Granados, the SOS Programme Development Coordinator for Latin America. “But the overall objective is to prevent domestic violence, building awareness and resilience, aiming to break the cycle of abuse, suffering and abandonment in the region.”
The unseen traces in children
Psychologist and child’s safeguarding specialist at SOS Children Villages, Stephany Orihuela, says the low self-esteem and low self-worth of children who have experienced violence is what stands out. But therapist must also work on the underlying issues, as well. “This is the need of affection, of belonging, to be heard and loved,” says Ms Orihuela. “This is what a therapist must connect with.” Without emotional wellbeing, it is impossible to improve their behaviour, she adds.
A toxic environment at home distorts a child view of relationships in various way, explains Orihuela. First, they learn that if somebody loves them, they can be violent. Secondly, they internalize that anyone with certain authority can humiliate them and mistreat them. And lastly, for a lack of communication abilities, violence becomes a way to solve conflicts.
Evidence shows that children living in homes with domestic violence are at increased risk of becoming aggressors or victims in the future. The priority in psychological therapy is to deconstruct these beliefs, otherwise, they will carry them throughout their lives and in all their relationships, Ms Orihuela says.
Building resilience and self-confidence
In the Peruvian system, once a domestic violence report is filed in a Women’s Emergency Centre, psychological therapy is usually mandatory for parents to keep their children. Unfortunately, the services offered by the state are insufficient, there is a high demand and a loss in quality. A child abuse victim receives only three to five sessions with a counsellor in a public health institution before the case is closed.
SOS Children’s Villages Perú works in alliance with the state to offer support to avoid family separation. Besides legal guidance and capacity building in parental skills and economic independence, they work in partnership with private institutions to offer psychological therapy to families who have suffered domestic violence.
Marcela and her children all undertook weekly individual psychological therapy for six months, while they received home visits from Lili Ñuñez, an SOS family advisor who’s aim was to offer support and assurance. The children also attended the “Older brother” initiative at the SOS Social centre, where they received academic reinforcement after school and art or music lessons.
“All of these helped the children develop self-confidence and resilience,” says Ms. Ñuñez. “Also, through the workshops organised at the SOS social centre for the families in the communities, we improved their bonds and communication with their mother.”
The children’s father is free and does not pay child support. Marcela is fearful. She keeps the children close and refuses to leave them alone for too long. She sells cosmetics by catalogue and works as a home nurse for the elderly a few hours a day.
Paul eventually overcame his depression. He will finish school this year and wants to become a doctor to protect and heal others. Lucy is healthy and full of energy and little Gabo quickly improved his language abilities with early stimulation at the SOS Social Centre.
Today Ana shows her new home proudly. She is happy they have a home of their own and feels safe. In the future, she wishes to become a nurse like her mother. “My mother is my example of courage and love, I want to become a nurse like her,” she says.
*Names changed to protect privacy
**All social activities in the region are suspended due to the Covid19 pandemic. The field colleagues are constantly in contact with the families in the communities to provide guidance and support.