Keyla Dutra, the coordinator of our Pink House in Cândio Sales, describes how she and her team are bringing hope to young lives traumatised by a local culture of abuse and sexual exploitation.
Every day at Meninadança I am confronted as a human being. It’s not easy to survive against this tide, to go against the storm, where abuse and exploitation is a normal part of life. But I know that girls are finding hope, and that’s the reason I’m still fighting.
Unfortunately, my town exists in a different cultural context, the culture of exploitation. The girls we work with are seen as lost and worthless, predestined to suffering, violence and sexual exploitation. It is as if that’s how it is meant to be, so that’s what happens to them.
Here, everyone knows everyone, and if there is a girl who is being abused or exploited everyone knows, but no-one does anything. Instead of seeing her as a victim they look down on her, they label her, as if she is somehow to blame. If she walks down the street, or goes to the market, people talk about her, they won’t let their own children close to her, but they don’t try to help her.
Our local child protection network is also full of holes. They are the ones who should be rescuing these girls, but often it seems they are also colluding with the local culture. Maybe not because they want to, perhaps it’s because they just don’t have the strength the fight something that has become so ingrained. So social services, the guardianship council, the police, they just let it happen, they don’t do anything. Ours is a very harsh reality.
“Girls are predestined to suffering, violence and sexual exploitation.”
That’s why the Pink House is so important. I always say that Meninadança here in Cândido Sales is like a leafy tree for the girls, which provides shade, as well as oxygen for them to breathe. Each girl is a world of pain, they’ve gone through so much at such a young age. But in the Pink House they find themselves. They feel special, and they know they will find people who love them and who won’t judge them.
Last week we held a Blossom Meeting in the Pink House, an evening meeting for the harder-to-reach girls. The theme we chose was ‘resilience’, and we told the girls they could have a second chance and start over again, even with all their scars and wounds.
One of the things I like to do with the girls is sit them down on a beautifully laid table, with decorations and delicious treats, to show them they are worthy, that they have a place. I set the table myself, it’s like my love language. That’s what I did for these girls too.
At one point some of them left the house to go and use drugs, and they came back drugged up. We didn’t judge them though, we simply sat them down at their place, where there was a little note on top of their plate telling them they were special and that there is always time to restart.
Then a girl called me over and said, ‘I don’t deserve this, Keyla, I don’t deserve a dinner like this, such a neat table’. I told her she did deserve it and I sat her down and served her. And she ate it, and she saw that our love for her was not conditional on her actions.
And from there many of the girls begin to change, because once they know how much they are loved, they start to believe they really can start over, rebuild, live a different life.
That’s our biggest objective – to make this change in their mind and heart. The Pink House is not a place for the girls to pass the time, it’s a place where they find transformation.
That transformation happens every day, as I see the girls being brave, winning, making the right decisions. Transformation isn’t something that happens magically overnight, it comes over time as the girls spend time with us, listen to us, receive positive messages and start to make the right decisions.
Without the Pink House, the girls would be predestined to be what their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, were. We can’t make decisions for them, but we can show them that they are the masters of their own destinies, and they don’t have to be what their families’ destiny dictated for them. The Pink House gives them this new perspective on life, it gives them back the dignity, the dreams and the self-esteem that have been lost.
“Giving up isn’t in our vocabulary. Perseverance is the word that guides us.”
I often think of the girls that come here like caterpillars that enter a cocoon, and inside that cocoon they spend time, change, gain wings and fly. It’s what happens inside the Pink House. We see the girls transforming. They find their voices, they learn self-control, they begin to dream again, they grow in strength, and they no longer believe they need to be that which society has dictated for them.
There is still a lot of work to do, and there are still girls we haven’t managed to reach. There’s one girl who we’ve been to see five times, and we still haven’t gained her trust. But we are tireless! Giving up isn’t in our vocabulary – perseverance is the word that guides us.
Sometimes you go to a girl’s house and she says, ‘No, I don’t want to go to the Pink House’. But we keep trying, even if it means going back five, ten times. Then you need to come up with different strategies, like holding a dinner at the house just so you can invite her, or getting in touch with a mutual friend who could bring her. Sometimes we even go and do an event on the girl’s street knowing she’ll see us, or maybe put a letter under her door with a chocolate glued onto it! We never give up. Because we begin to imagine her with us, taking care of her, how her life would change if she were with us. That’s the dream that motivates us.
Personally, the biggest challenge is to not let myself be contaminated by the local culture. It’s what I ask God for the most, that I don’t begin to see these things and think they are normal. Because if I let that happen I’ll be the same as everyone else, I’ll lay down my weapons and stop fighting. I can’t look at this battle and think that it’s lost, I can’t leave these girls to their fate.
No, I have to go against the system. It’s not easy working at the tip of the spear, it’s difficult and it often hurts. Sometimes you see all the injustices, you see when nothing happens to the abuser, the rapist, you look at your hands and you see they are tied, because there are things you can do but many things you cannot.
It’s a challenge to survive against this raging storm. Sometimes we get knocked down, but we get up, read a book, pray for strength, get professional help from a psychologist… and start again. I know I won’t be able to save all the girls in my town, but I will fight with all my strength to rescue as many as I can.
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