From Hurt to Healing: Ending Abuse in Rural Ecuador

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Posted on 7/9/2015
woman stands in front of handwritten flipchart, speaking and gesturing.

An important part of Johanna’s work as a Trainer Mother is the weekly classes she teaches on what children need from their parents in early childhood. This week’s session is about early stimulation.

In areas of Ecuador where poverty has a stronghold, corporal punishment is the common form of discipline. When families live in poverty, children tend to be seen as small, helpless people, and adults are responsible for their survival. The struggles that come with poverty cause parents to be stressed and overextended … and “discipline” can become abuse.

“Parents can be very aggressive physically and emotionally,” says Johanna, a ChildFund-trained guide mother in her small Ecuadorean village, estimating that up to 20 percent of the children in her area suffer abuse at the hands of their parents. Through workshops and home visits, with support from the local partner organization through which ChildFund works in her area, Johanna works with caregivers to help them learn effective parenting skills and how to support their children’s development. ChildFund has also trained her and other guide mothers to respond to concerns about abuse, neglect or exploitation, and to refer more serious situations up to the local child and youth protection committee, which in turn may refer the case to the appropriate authorities and services.

“Children don’t feel respected by their parents,” says Johanna. “It’s something that really scars them. It’s like an inheritance, because the child learns these things and replicates them.”

A young mother named Mercy is an example. She had been beaten as a child, so, not knowing any better, she did the same with her own children. It damaged her oldest son’s self-esteem to the point that he spoke of suicide.

Lucia, who has two daughters, says she also experienced some physical abuse as she was growing up and knew she didn’t want to do that to her own children. But, in her case, abuse took a different form.

“I got pregnant when I was 14 years old, and my baby died,” Lucia remembers. “I think it was because I was too young to be a mother. When my baby died, the whole world crumbled around me. All my dreams were crushed. I didn’t have any interest in anything. Even my husband started to verbally abuse me because I lost the baby.”

Lucia soon became pregnant again, and this baby, a girl she named Mayerly, lived. Lucia would keep Mayerly in a little tub nearby while she worked with cows or planted in the fields. “I remember, when she started to cry or needed some diaper changing or feeding, I got so stressed about it — I thought it was too much trouble.”

It wasn’t until after Lucia’s second daughter was born five years later that her outlook began to shift, not long after she began participating in ChildFund’s parenting workshops.

“It was a complete change in my life,” Lucia says. “They taught us about how to treat the children, what we should tell them all the time, how to hug them, to greet them when they came back from school.” Lucia shared what she was learning about children’s needs with her husband. They applied it, and the family dynamic shifted. “My daughters now are very loving. Both are always hugging and kissing me, and both are always telling me, ‘Dear Mommy, we love you.’”

Mercy also has begun talking with her children instead of hitting them when she’s angry. As she participated in parenting workshops in her own community, she came to understand what her harsh way of speaking to her older son was doing to him. Now she talks to him about his day, about school, about his friends. “He is happier,” she says, “a stronger big brother for the younger ones.”

small girl and mother hugging and smiling

Vanessa, 5, and her mother worked with one of Ecuador's Trainer Mothers before Vanessa entered preschool and then kindergarten.

Johanna, the guide mother, has her own regrets. She explains that after her little girl was born, she focused all of her attention on that baby at the expense of her three sons. Johanna became both neglectful and overprotective — oblivious to the boys’ needs but restricting them from the kinds of play and exploration that growing boys need. “The boys started having aggressive attitudes,” she says, adding that the youngest, Darwin, developed learning difficulties. He was in first grade. “He didn’t know how to read or write, and now he still can’t read well,” she says. “He should have learned those things when he was younger, and now it’s very hard.”

Asked why she became a guide mother, Johanna says, “I do this because I like to help others,” Johanna says of her decision to become a guide mother. “But it’s also so I can learn to be a better mother. What I have learned is that I have to give more love to my children.” More hugs, more kisses, more space to grow and learn.

“It’s something that is free, and I get back double what I give them.”

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