Life as a Teenage Girl in Foster Care

I never realized how important it is to have a family until I lost my own.

For the first eight years of my life I lived in a small, impoverished town in Jamaica with my five siblings and our parents. We were so poor that we often had to stay home from school because my parents didn’t have enough money to cover our school fees and uniforms. I know it was especially difficult for my mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer while trying to raise the five of us. Her illness eventually forced her to depend on our father to care for us without her help. My dad was not necessarily the nicest man and often resorted to yelling and saying awful things to us.

I was nine when my father moved our family to Florida and split us up to live with various relatives. My siblings and I lived with different relatives for a year before our father was finally able to bring us together to live with him—though life at home was anything but positive. Although my family was finally together again, our situation at home was a nightmare. My father became emotionally and physically abusive behind closed doors and I would often go to school with cuts, bruises and a broken heart. This abuse took a toll on me.  Not having a stable, safe place to call home eventually impacted my performance in school – my report cards were decorated with Ds and Fs.

When I was 14, our situation was brought to the attention of the Department of Child Services. Our family was given a case number and I was assigned a caseworker.  I was ultimately removed from my toxic living environment to live in a foster home with other girls. I was placed there because my caseworker was unable to find a home that would take me along with my siblings. Nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted – especially when you’re 14.

Sadly, my story isn’t unique. Around 220 million children worldwide – that’s 1 in every 10 children – are at risk of growing up without a stable, loving family. In many of these cases children lose their families to poverty, conflict or natural disasters, but in others their parents are simply unfit to parent – like my dad. Without a family, many of these kids risk being exploited, abused or trafficked. Here in the United States, it is not unusual for orphaned or neglected children to move from foster home to foster home until they are 18 and age out of the system – never understanding what true stability feels like.

At 15, I was brought to live in a family home at an SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek, Florida.  I was told I would be living with my siblings and that I’d be taken care of by an SOS house parent, a caregiver dedicated to caring for children who’ve grow up in similar situations like me.

My confidence was close to non-existent when I got to SOS. To make matters worse, I was beginning to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety brought on by my tumultuous upbringing. This made for a challenging time for Rashani, my house parent. Nevertheless, Rashani was patient with me; she powered through and never gave up on me.

Thanesia and Rashani

I remember my first day at SOS like it was yesterday; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so cared for. Rashani showed me my room, made me dinner and told me what SOS was all about – love, support and stability. She made it clear that I would be supported and given access to therapists to help me overcome my trauma. She also assisted me with getting a tutor to help bring my grades up. She provided the stability I desperately needed in order to stop feeling like I was constantly on survival mode.

Rashani’s support and the family environment I found at SOS truly changed my life for the better. My grades went from trash to As and Bs. I learned how to cope with my depression and anxiety. But most importantly, I felt like I finally had the tools I needed to pursue my dreams.

Even after I left SOS, Rashani was by my side. She became a case manager for SOS’s Next Steps program, which helps people like me transition to adulthood. She helped me become the young woman I am today and continues to be the parent I always needed to this day. I know that in her I have a family for life.

Fast forward to now – I am enrolled in the Army and working towards a degree in child psychology because I want to help children and teens going through what I went through. I want to give them a voice and show them that they have someone who believes in them. If it had not been for someone believing in me, I am not sure where I would have ended up.

I know not everyone has a story like mine, but I also know how hard it is to be a teen and to feel misunderstood. For the people going through tough times, take the good with the bad. There are people out there who are willing to help you and watch you succeed.

In the US and around the world, SOS Children’s Villages builds families for orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children. To learn more about SOS Children’s Villages and how you can help girls like Thanesia visit www.sos-usa.org/sponsor-a-child.

#NoChildAlone: Investing in Care for Children

Today is Universal Children’s Day, the anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stresses that all children must be protected, all children have a right to all they need to grow and develop, and all children have a right to be cared for.

To commemorate the day, SOS Children’s Villages asked children all over the world to show us how their mom or dad care for them.

It was heartwarming to receive more than 400 video clips from children in different countries who captured these touching moments with their parents.

But the sad reality is that 1 in 10 children – 220 million children worldwide – can’t share any of these moments because they’re growing up alone – without a loving family to care for them.

According to ‘The Care Effect‘, a report released by SOS Children’s Villages, children who grow up without adequate parental care are particularly vulnerable to the worst forms of human rights violations such as child labor, exclusion, violence, and sex trafficking. They have a limited or no access to education and medical services simply because there is no one to take them to school or a health center.

There is also a scientifically proven connection between the amount of love and care children receive and their mental health and ability to learn, which ultimately affect children’s success in life.

Care for children is one of the best investments in the future the global community can make now.

Expert insight summarized in ‘The Care Effect‘ report shows that children who grow up in a caring environment are more likely to develop social skills and resilience to cope with life’s adversity and reach their full potential. This has a positive effect on their community as a whole. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University estimated that every dollar invested in early childhood development returns $4 to $9 to society.

A strong foundation for children’s future starts in a caring family.  

For orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children, SOS Children’s Villages builds loving, stable families across 135 countries. Through the #NoChildAlone campaign that is kicking off today SOS Children’s Villages is connecting global voices in support of the care every child needs to grow, thrive, and lead a fulfilling life.

Join SOS Children’s Villages in honoring Universal Children’s Day by watching and sharing this video.

Learn more about how you can help make sure no child grows up alone.

The Power and Influence of Mothers-in-Law in Lesotho

We have all heard the stories of ‘monsters-in-law’ when a group of women get talking about their husbands’ mothers. Some women are blessed with mothers-in-law who treat them as respected family members, while others struggle with finding balance between two of the most important women in a man’s life.

In Lesotho (southern Africa), this same dichotomy exists, but the ‘monsters-in-law’ are creating consequences far more severe than whose lasagna is preferred, or who will host Christmas dinner.

When we think about achieving gender equity, many of us assume that men are holding girls and women back through patriarchal norms. But mothers-in-law are women – and they have traditionally been one of the greatest hindrances to empowering women in Lesotho.

When a man and woman get married in Lesotho, it is traditional for the newlywed couple to live with the husband’s family for six months with no contact with the brides’ family. If she fails to meet her mother-in-law’s expectations, she will often be mocked and sometimes even abused. For many young women who enter into marriage with low self-esteem due to poverty, trauma and limited education, being verbally, emotionally, or physically abused by an older woman can give them the lowest sense of worth imaginable.

Mothers-in-law in Lesotho hold a tremendous amount of power that can be transferred to empower their daughters-in-law, or to abuse them. On the abusive end of the spectrum, the following are three of the most overt examples:

  1. Naming rights: Mothers-in-law can significantly change the identity of their daughters-in-law. When a girl gets married, her mother-in-law has the right, under customary law, to rename her anything she wants. Mothers-in-law who do not approve of their new daughter-in-law may give her a rude name that will make her feel ashamed to leave home. Mothers-in-law also get to name the couples’ first child, and the new mother’s identity is changed once again as she takes on the name ‘Ma-child’s name’.
  2. Doubt: Daughters-in-law live in scrutiny over every action they take; if they wear something that makes them look beautiful when they go to town, their mother-in-law might assume they are meeting another man. This level of mistrust manifests itself in relationships beyond mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, often leading to the wife being abused for something that her mother-in-law fabricated or exaggerated.
  3. Abuse: The way a mother raises her son plays a significant role in the extent to which a man respects and values women. For some mothers, they are so tragically accustomed to violence that they actually encourage their sons to perpetuate this deeply harmful behaviour. When mothers are threatened by their daughters-in-law, in terms of influence, money, or opportunity, some mothers-in-law will go as far as to instruct their son to ‘put the wife in her place’.

While there are no official statistics on the prevalence of mother-in-law conflict in Lesotho, it is clear that the issue is very common. There are at least as many women who share stories of conflict with their mothers-in-law as there are women who have been embraced by their mothers-in-law.

HL young mothers 2017 (3)
Photo credit: Help Lesotho

 

So, why are so many mothers-in-law limiting the freedom and confidence of their daughters-in-law? It’s certainly not that all mothers-in-law are inherently bad women. In fact, it’s not even all that difficult to understand things from the ‘monster-in-law’ perspective. If you were receiving financial support from your son, which would be typical in Lesotho where the majority of families live in poverty, and suddenly that support ended, you might also let feelings of jealousy and desperation affect your behaviour.

Perhaps the biggest reason for daughter-in-law mistreatment is the normalcy of it. Teliso Nchabeng, a Program Officer with Help Lesotho, explains that mothers-in-law face a high degree of peer pressure. Teliso says, “other mothers in law treat their daughter in laws poorly, so it’s like ‘keeping up with the neighbours’ to also follow suit”. Much of this mentality comes from mothers-in-law treating their daughters-in-law the way they were treated by their own mothers-in-law.

Mothers-in-law have the potential to significantly change the power dynamics within families at many levels – and if they use their influence for good – thereby foregoing the years of mistreatment and abuse – we will see daughters-in-law with stronger marriages, healthier children, and higher confidence fueled by the respect of their husbands and family members. ‘Monsters-in-law’ will be a myth of the past, or at least relegated to discussions about what colour of shirt the husband/son should wear for the family photo.

Cover photo credit: Help Lesotho

Defining Family: International Widows’ Day

The 26th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council will come to an end this week. The Council discussions included an annual discussion on gender integration, panel discussions on preventing and eliminating child, early and forced marriage, gender stereotypes and women’s human rights and sustainable development. A resolution was also put forward on the Protection of Family, a resolution that was originally put forward back in March at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council. However, it was set aside for the next session as many member states blocked the resolution citing the resolution as controversial and damaging to progress made in the aspect of the rights of both children and women.

Image c/o Wikimedia Commons
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons

I would like to take this opportunity of the annual International Widow’s Day to highlight just why this resolution is harmful and has the potential to perpetuate the suffering and injustice faced by widows, young women, girls and boys worldwide. Firstly, the resolution builds on recent resolutions that recognise the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society; this in itself is not a bad thing. However, it does not recognise the diversity of family formations for example a single mother with her children, a widow and her son, gay couple raising their adopted child, etc. This resolution notes that family is a man and woman and their children. Hence, it is the protection of the ‘traditional-social’ definition of family.

2014 is the UN’s International Year of the Family, further highlighting the importance of family. In this regard 2014 should be a year to celebrate family in all its diversity. It is an opportunity to advocate for those who do not fit into the concept of a ‘traditional family’ – for example women who are widows or people who cannot start a family due to discriminatory laws and practices.

Take the case of widows in India, who account for an estimated 40 million and approximately 10% of all the nation’s women. Their suffering and voices must be heard. In many cases these women are ostracised and have no means of making an income; forcing them into poverty. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, a widow is referred to as randi, which means “prostitute” in Punjabi. In this region, they usually arrange for the widow to marry her deceased husband’s brother as the social belief is that being owned by a man is a way to avoid being raped. Sadly, this practice of forced marriage exists in many other parts of the world and in this vein women and girls are treated as property not humans. Also, the deceased husband’s family in the majority of these cases will forcibly take actual property and land from the widow and claim it as theirs. Margaret Ngii, a widow from Kenya and mother of seven describes her traumatic experience;

After his burial, things drastically changed for the worst, my in-laws took all the properties my late husband had bought, nothing was left to me; the culture does not recognise the well-being of a woman.”

This is gender based violence against women and is a direct violation of their human rights. The story does not end here; let’s look at single mothers (like my mum). Outcomes from the International Report on Mapping Family notes that children are more likely to live with one or no parent in the Americas, Europe, Oceania, and Sub-Saharan Africa than in other regions. Globally, one-quarter to one-third of all families are headed by single mothers. Who has the right to tell these women that as single mothers they are not families? Take the USA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, out of 12 million single parent families in 2013, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Today, 1 in 3 children – a total of 15 million – are being raised without a father and nearly half live below the poverty line.

If we as nations support the UN resolution on the Protection of the Family that is being proposed at the Human Rights Council, we condemn those that do not fit into the rigid box of a ‘traditional family’ to a life of misery and discrimination. But there is another way. We can support and advocate for a more inclusive definition of family and continue to raise awareness on the discrimination faced by widows, single parents and LGTQI community. It is essential that we advocate and work with policy makers and law decision makers to ensure the law protects and promote human rights for all regardless of marital status, background, race, gender or sexual orientation.

This International Widows’ Day, learn more about the plight of widows from Girls’ Globe bloggers:

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

Repercussions of Dowries and Arranged Marriages in India

In India, the caste system, dowries, and arranged marriages are sustaining a hostile environment for women in the country.

Immersing yourself in a culture or population to find out its needs and not imposing your beliefs upon others are lessons that have been vital in my study and practice of public service and public health. As cultures come together and the world grows smaller, this is not the time to abandon tradition, pass judgment, or foster hatred. Throughout history, fear and misunderstanding of differences have cost our world far too much. However, the shrinking of the world has also created an opportunity to investigate the fine line between tradition and injustice. Injustices can be passed on under the guise of tradition, and are costing individuals opportunities, health, and in some cases even their lives. These things need to be talked about.

It is an accepted practice for men of India’s Perna caste to “pimp” their wives as a way to earn income for the family. A detailed article in the Pacific Standard examines the lives of Perna women and includes the following quotes:

“She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17…two years later, his prostitute”.

“I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”

“It happens to every girl.”

“You get used to it.”

The article also explains why an entire village was absent of women ages 15-45. “They are all in Bombay…” Families are paid, sometimes as little as $50 for their daughters. In Calcutta (also known as Kolkata) and Bombay (also known as Mumbai), the girls are priced according to beauty and age. “Pimps (give) them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between 9 and 13 years old, (are) then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.”

A recent BBC article revealed that women in Kerala, India, are being abandoned by their husbands at an alarming rate. Due to economic hardship in the area, men are getting married, taking their dowries, and moving elsewhere to find work, often times never returning. The women of Kerala, who are told that the most important aspect of their lives is to become a wife, have now lost everything. These women lack opportunity to create a life independent of their husbands, and  are currently facing high rates of depression.

To me, the dowry suggests that women are inferior to men, and it often costs women much more than its monetary worth.

Outright violence such as dowry killings that occur if a man believes he should have been paid a larger dowry, or families being torn apart because of dowry discrepancies, are some of the severe consequences of dowry practice. What I hope to present here, is the problem with a tradition that creates a lack of opportunity and independence for women and sends out the message that prostituting and abandoning your wife is acceptable. This is the underlying dilemma.

Buying and selling of women is a global phenomenon. As we work to eradicate this problem, usually occurring behind closed doors, we must remember that it is also occurring in plain sight. Women are bought and sold in broad day light under the guise of marriage.

Rukshira Gupta, the founder of Apne Aap, an organization that creates alternative opportunities for children of sex workers in New Dehli, explains that women in India are in danger from conception to death. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”

A ‘Women in the World’ article outlines inadequacies in current legislation aimed at protecting women in India, and how the caste system is playing a role in its failures.

What will it take to improve the status of women in India? Where should the line be drawn between custom and injustice?

*All images by Liz Fortier. People portrayed in the images are not related to the post.