Houses of Refuge and Healing

- Ann Corvera () - December 2, 2007 - 12:00am

Sister Nida Viovicente said it was “love at first sight” when two Spanish nuns brought to the country God’s message of liberation to sexually abused girls and women. Sr. Nida, along with 15 other nuns, has been married to this mission for 25 years since the first youngsters were rescued from the streets of Ermita rife with prostitution in the late 80s.

Marking the silver jubilee of the Oblate Sisters of the Most Holy Redeemer (OSR) is the triumph of hope over the tragedy of exploitation, many of which were committed by the people who were supposed to protect them.

The stories, regardless of familiarity, always have a chilling effect – mothers pimping their daughters, fathers and stepfathers molesting their little girls, prostitution running in the family from lola to apo.

The girls looked on timidly but gave warm smiles in welcoming a stranger into their home, as STARweek visited Serra’s Center for Girls in Pasay City, one of three houses of refuge and rehabilitation being run by the OSR in the country – the other two being St. Mary’s House in Tagaytay, the first to be established, and Antonia de Oviedo Center in Cebu City.

It was a Saturday, and general cleaning was in order, with the nuns, lay staff and the girls doing their respective chores. The girls smiled sheepishly at their guest, and went about their work.

Trust is hardest to gain from the girls, says Sr. Nida, and like faith it has to come from within, not forced out of them.

“You don’t readily talk to them about God,” says the first Filipino Oblate sister to return from their “initial formation to religious life” in Venezeula, and executive director of Serra’s Center.

In one vulnerable moment when Sr. Nida was telling a 13-year-old victim about God’s love, the girl shot back: “Kung mahal ako ng Diyos bakit hinayaan Niya na mangyari ito sa akin? (If God loves me then why did He let this happen?)”

Softly, Sr. Nida replies: “Kung di ka mahal ng Diyos, walang pari na nagligtas sa ’yo. At kung walang Diyos na nagmamahal sa ‘yo, walang Sister Nida na nakikinig sa ’yo ngayon (If God didn’t love you, you wouldn’t have been rescued by a priest. If there was no God that loves you, there would be no Sister Nida listening to you now).”

The Oblate Sisters are naturally protective of the girls but respecting their rights is paramount. Sr. Nida says the girls are aware of the interview and Sr. Araceli Ponce, the project officer who oversees the group therapy of 18 girls, adds they are assured foremost that their identities are protected.

The Oblate Sisters, although only 16 in all three centers plus the formation house in Parañaque, are not alone in their mission. Social workers, psychologists and teachers work with them. “But one thing that needs to be developed is to have volunteers to assist us,” Sr. Nida points out.

Sr. Araceli explains that they follow modules in therapy. In groups of six to seven girls each, sessions are adapted to the circumstances surrounding their experience. Here, they can speak their mind freely and although the girls usually share little, some never talk at all.

Most of the girls, aged 12 to 17, are victims of incest and making the experience more horrible for them is when more than one family member is involved.

One girl, who at the age of 10 was forced into prostitution by her own mother, experienced so much trauma in her still very short life that recently it was discovered she was involved in a “criminal act” despite undergoing rehabilitation for almost four years now. At the tender age of 12, the girl had an abortion – her first – then had a baby soon after and another abortion. She is now 16 years old.

“She was abused as early as seven by a cousin and her stepfather,” says Sr. Nida. “She couldn’t say ‘no’ to her abusers, she felt powerless.”

When her teacher found out that the student was a victim of sexual exploitation, she brought her to St. Mary’s House.

Teachers have been playing a vital role in the congregation’s efforts to rescue abused children. “If a teacher is sensitive, she will notice changes in the behavior of the child, like if she becomes aloof,” Sr. Nida notes.

St. Mary’s House is the first mission center of the congregation in the county. After Sr. Nida was sent back from her training in Venezuela, more young Filipino women followed to take part in the mission.

“When the Spanish sisters who arrived from Venezuela went to St. Theresa’s College in Cebu where I was studying as a psychology major, that’s when my mission began. I never knew that a group of sisters were working to rehabilitate prostitutes or sexually exploited girls. That’s when the discerning process began with my spiritual director,” Sr. Nida recalls.

The congregation first settled in a rented house in Parañaque and initially dedicated themselves to “vocational promotion” in different parts of the country.

The construction of the Tagaytay center started in 1988, or some six years after the mission’s foundation in the Philippines on Sept. 11, 1982.  After its inauguration, the sisters began working with non-government organizations and Manila policemen that raided prostitution dens in Ermita. The girls were brought to Tagaytay.

Hearing the call of many sexually exploited street girls then in Manila, the congregation opened Serra’s Center for Girls in Pasay City in 1993, and five years later in 1998, the same call was felt in Cebu City.

The OSR’s project has different phases, Sr. Nida shares, which also involves a preventive program wherein the girls don’t live with them or are not necessarily victims of sexual abused but are at risk of falling victims because of their living condition like in communities where there is prostitution, high unemployment rate and drug addiction problems.

“They come to the center for values formation. The sisters give a series of value clarification sessions – skills for life, adolescent reproductive health, teenage pregnancy, Convention on the Rights of the Children – they are also taught how to deal with abusive situations so that they would be able to identify them and they would know what to do,” Sr. Nida explains.

“In the skills for life session, we have topics on communication skills, how to relate to people and vari-ous situations, how to assert your right, how to express their opinion even how to question us and how to evaluate our programs and services – if it is helping them and what they can suggest to improve on it.”

In the centers, victims of abuse not only go through the process of rehabilitation, but also of forgiveness – forgiving themselves so they may forgive others – and of reconciliation where they come face-to-face with their abuser. But only if the girl says she is ready, Sr. Nida stresses.

Monitoring, of course, is a crucial part of the mission with social workers aiding them by visiting the home of the reconciled family and talking to the child.

“We don’t just return the girls without having family assessment and the social worker comes back for visits to ensure that the abuse won’t happen again,” Sr. Nida points out.

Many of the rehabilitated victims are still in contact with the congregation. Some have families of their own now and there are those working as social workers and giving something back to the mission.

The 13-year-old girl who questioned God’s love and existence is now a social worker. She has a twin who was also sexually exploited and is now working with an NGO.

During the OSR’s silver jubilee, some of these “graduates” graced the event along with special guest Venezuelan Chargé d’affaires Manuel Perez Iturbe last month highlighted by a Mass celebrated by Imus Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle. There was singing and dancing, and the girls offered the sisters and the staff flowers to thank them for their selfless devotion so that the abused can reclaim the lives stolen from them.

Mental restructuring for victims of abuse is a long, hard road, and the Oblate Sisters try to get to the root of their pain.

One terrible impact of a hapless young girl falling victim to sexual abuse is when she starts feeling guilty and blames herself for the ordeal –  “damaged goods syndrome,” as Sr. Nida puts it. Some fear they won’t be believed if they talk.

“Abusers threaten the girls if they talk. Some of the girls experience their mothers na hindi kampi sa kanila, or would stand by the father. And that’s one reason why the girls have a very difficult time sharing,” explains Sr. Nida, who has a masters degree in religious education and clinical psychology.

Another dilemma is when the girls get disoriented from repeated abuse that they begin to think they had enjoyed it somehow anyway.

Sr. Araceli says part of the activity is to slowly let the girls feel comfortable with their body’s anatomy.

The Oblate Sisters work to instill in the girls’ minds that losing their virginity doesn’t mean they have lost their sense of being. To the girls, even when they fully get a grip of their anger, “revenge” or “justice” in their terms means seeing their abusers behind bars.

The abuses have kept many of these kids from school but the mission also helps them with this. In fact, this month, several of them are slated to take the Philippine Education Placement Test (PEPT) administered by the government every year to evaluate the grade level of students returning to the school system or seeking admission to college. With the aid of teachers working with the congregation, the girls are tutored for the exams. The OSR mission also has had several girls going onto college, as they go through the social reintegration phase and with the assistance of donors.

The congregation has been blessed with selfless donors throughout the years, including offers to pay for the girls’ tuition.

The Consuelo Foundation helped the OSR construct Serra’s Center. For the St. Mary’s House, the late Lourdes Benitez and her family donated the lot in Tagaytay while its construction in 1988 was made possible by contributions from several international organizations in Europe along with some individual donors, too, and of course, the OSR in Spain and Venezuela. The construction of the facilities in Cebu – recovery/residential center, drop-in center and the social reintegration facility – was a contribution from the Missio-Aachen Fundacion Anesvad. And the social reintegration facility in Tagaytay City will soon rise still with the help of organizations from Europe.

The programs and services of OSR-Philippines count on the continued support of these organizations, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer known as the Redemptorist Fathers and individuals like Marivic Rufino, a long-time friend of the OSR, says Sr. Nida, who shares her blessings from the proceeds from her paintings every year, and Aida Soliven of the Centro Escolar University in Manila.

The congregation also thanks professor Lily Mangubat of the College of Social Work and Family Development of the University of the Philippines, Diliman for her continued technical assistance for the development of the expertise of the different working teams in all three centers.

While the girls have found refuge in the OSR centers, the sisters find theirs among each other and in the sanctity of the chapels – seeking strength from the Lord, as they share the emotional, spiritual and mental burden of the victims and help the young girls regain hope in themselves, in society, and in God.

 Contact the Oblate Sisters at tel 256-3974 or 231-9756.

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