“Violence in the developing world is like grief in the developed world—it’s everywhere, but we just don’t see it.” –Gary Haugen The Locust Effect
This past spring Gap Year took me to Huánuco, Peru to live with a local family and volunteer at a shelter for young sexual abuse victims called Paz y Esperanza.
As odd as this sounds, the initial days at Paz felt a lot like scrolling through Netflix choices. For the record, I’m a Netflix documentary fiend. I love any social justice exposé—anything that teaches me about a little known topic and begs an untried passion. I could watch a new documentary every day of the week. The only downside to that is the miniature existential crisis I typically fall into after each film. “I’ve been living in a world of lies!” or “I am personally responsible for ending (insert social justice issue here)!” are some of the overly dramatic thoughts that run through my mind as the credits roll. In the past, I’ve been convinced to stop buying from H&M and to never again eat Tyson’s chicken. I’ve decided before that I want to be a slam poet, to build my own tiny home, and to boycott wearing bras. To whatever degree, a well-made social justice documentary almost always moves me to action.
Some nights, though, I don’t feel like getting off my comfortable mental couch. Some nights I’d prefer to just not care about anything other than my own life. Those are the nights that my cursor hovers over the “Play Now” button contemplating whether or not I should commit to two hours of perspective-shifting interviews and undercover footage. In my mind, to click play means to be told I’m wrong about something I’ve always thought. To click play means to rethink how I’m living. To click play means to ask questions that I might not like the answers to.
When I got to Paz, I knew immediately that I was about to be exposed to a kind of pain and injustice that I’d never experienced before. There were around 40 girls who had been attacked, abused, and taken advantage of by the people who were supposed to be looking out for them—by their neighbors, cousins, friends, and fathers. For my first few days at Paz, my cursor was over the “Play Now” button, scared to get started and have my world rocked. I saw the hard work that the full-time volunteers at the shelter were doing. I saw the gentle way they took care of the girls, and I heard how they fiercely told the stories of each girl’s abuse. They were full of love for these girls, full of frustration for a culture of exploitation, and full of ambition to restore lives and stop the cycle of abuse. I had seen the trailer for the film, and I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to press play. I couldn’t bring myself to engage and to feel.
As the days passed and as my really broken Spanish became slightly less broken, I was able to build relationships with the girls. It started with painting nails and playing volleyball and eventually turned into honest conversations about past pains and future aspirations. Before I knew it, I turned back to my laptop screen and the film was rolling. The girls had pressed play for me, and I was all in.
I think many volunteers all over the world have experienced this same phenomenon: they arrive in a new place with no prior knowledge of the culture or the social justice issues. They have nothing but a heart to serve and see. As time passes, the volunteers form friendships with the people they are serving, with the victims of some injustice. These friendships invoke compassion, which in turn, incites passion for the cause that affects their new friend. Pure, sustainable “passion” for a cause, I believe, comes only from compassion founded in relationships. The girls at Paz were able to give that kind of passion to me.
As my time at Paz came to an end, the credits rolled, and you guessed it. I was moved to action. I wondered how I could continue to be a part of the work of justice and combatting sexual violence in Peru while stateside. That’s when I applied and was selected for an internship in Washington, D.C. to work with a large NGO called International Justice Mission, which has a casework alliance with Paz y Esperanza.
IJM is an international human rights organization mobilized by the terrible truth that daily acts of violence against the poor and marginalized are perpetuating poverty worldwide. An endless cycle of abuse and impunity is keeping the poor in poverty and perpetrators on the streets. IJM is called to action by the somber facts that 1 in 5 women in the world will be victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime and that 4 billion people on the planet live in a state of “lawlessness”. Laws are not enforced, so perpetrators continue to abuse and exploit. In Bolivia, for example, it is more likely for a rapist to slip and fall and die in the bathtub than it is for him to ever be convicted of his crimes.
IJM has 17 field offices around the world largely run by local nationals that execute a 4-fold plan to combat this violent reality. 1. We work with local law enforcement to rescue victims of violence, like rape, forced labor, and sex trafficking. 2. We train local police, judges, and prosecutors to convict the perpetrators of violence. 3. We partner with local aftercare facilities to restore the victims and meet their needs. 4. We strengthen local justice systems to end impunity. Paz y Esperanza is one of those field offices, and when I was in Huánuco this spring, I was helping to “restore the victims”. At the headquarters in DC this summer, I am able to see the full, 4-fold mission. I’m able to see one way that people in the United States—people with freedom and protection under the law—are fighting to see justice for those you don’t yet have it.
When I first recognized my compassion for the girls at Paz, I knew that the things I learned on my gap year weren’t supposed to just stay there locked in time. I wasn’t meant to have my eyes ripped wide open to systematic injustice and societal poverty just to return to the same life trajectory and career path that one-year-ago me wanted. Those 9 months were a time of immersion, engagement, and growth. I engaged in the cultures and systems at play, taking in all that could and processing it in light of what I believe love and equality should look like. I watched the best film I’ve ever seen play on a giant screen all around me. And now, I’m figuring out how to log out of Netflix, get up off the couch, and do something about it.