Paul* (16), the oldest of four, lives in a house in his uncle’s backyard in Lima, Perú with his mother, Marcela, and three siblings: Ana (13), Lucy (9) and Gabo (3). The house, made of prefabricated material, is smaller than their previous one and didn’t even have a proper bathroom at first. But Paul and his sisters feel safer here, especially since they don’t live with their father anymore.
For years, the children witnessed their father humiliate and mistreat their mother. In 2018, Marcela found out that he had sexually abused Ana while she was away at work. Paul felt guilty; as the oldest brother, he felt he should have protected his sister.
SOS Children’s Villages Perú helped Marcela file a police report and arranged a place for the family to live in. But the traumatic experience left wounds too deep for the family to heal on their own.
“Paul tried to kill himself,” says Marcela, seated in her home surrounded by photos of her children. “He had depression and anxiety. Ana was afraid and the girls constantly got sick. The little one had language issues. I was fearful and I didn’t know how to help my children.”
More than 80% of children in Perú have been victims of violence in their homes and more than half of the cases reported in 2018 were related to physical and/or sexual violence from their parents, according to the National Survey of Social Relations of Perú.
Unfortunately, despite the alarming rates, the toll of the mental and emotional trauma brought on by domestic violence is often overlooked.
Children in families that experience violence are almost twice as likely to have a mental health diagnosis compared to children from average households, according to mental health experts. To have self-reliant and independent adults—and break the cycle of violence—society need to address the trauma they have experienced.
Across Latin America, SOS Children’s Villages supports the mental health of children in families in various ways, from dance classes in Brazil to workshops that teach positive masculinity to fathers in Nicaragua and Perú.
“Each national association has different approaches based on local realities and needs,” says Maricruz Granados, the SOS Program Development Coordinator for Latin America. “But the overall objective is to prevent domestic violence, build awareness and resilience and break the cycle of abuse, suffering and abandonment in the region.”
The unseen traces in children
Psychologist and child’s safeguarding specialist at SOS Children Villages, Stephany Orihuela, says that the low self-esteem and low self-worth of children who have experienced violence stands out, but therapists need to also work on the underlying issues. “This is the need of affection, of belonging, to be heard and loved,” says Ms. Orihuela. “This is what a therapist must connect with.”
A toxic environment at home distorts a child's view of relationships, explains Ms. Orihuela. First, they learn that if somebody loves them, they can be violent. Second, they internalize that anyone with certain authority can humiliate them and mistreat them. Third, violence may become a way to solve conflicts if they lack communication skills.
Evidence shows that children living in homes with domestic violence are at increased risk of becoming aggressors or victims in the future. The priority in psychological therapy is to deconstruct these beliefs, otherwise they will carry them throughout their lives and into all their relationships.
Building resilience and self-confidence
In the Peruvian system, once a domestic violence report is filed in a Women’s Emergency Center, psychological therapy is usually mandatory in order for parents to keep their children. Unfortunately, the services offered by the state are insufficient: there is a high demand and the care is not always adequate. A child abuse victim often receives only three to five sessions with a counselor in a public health institution before the case is closed.
SOS Children’s Villages Perú works in tandem with the state to offer support and avoid family separation. In addition to providing legal guidance, parenting classes and support to help families achieve economic independence, they work in partnership with private institutions to offer psychological therapy to families who have suffered domestic violence.
Marcela and her children all began weekly individual psychological therapy for six months, while they received home visits from Lili Ñuñez, an SOS family advisor whose aim was to offer support and assurance. The children also attended the “Big Brother” initiative at the SOS Social Center, where they received academic reinforcement after school and art lessons from mentors.
“All of these helped the children develop self-confidence and resilience,” says Ms. Ñuñez. “Through the workshops organized at the SOS Social Center for the families in the communities, we improved their communication and bonds with their mother.”
The children’s father is free and does not pay child support. Marcela is fearful; she keeps the children close and refuses to leave them alone for too long. She sells cosmetics by catalog and works as a geriatric home nurse a few hours a day.
With support, Paul eventually overcame his depression. He will finish school this year and wants to become a doctor to protect and heal others. Lucy is healthy and full of energy, and little Gabo quickly improved his language abilities with early stimulation at the SOS Social Center.
Today, Ana shows her new home proudly. She is happy that they have a home of their own and feels safe. In the future, she wishes to become a nurse like her mother. “My mother is my example of courage and love, I want to become a nurse like her,” she says.
*Names changed to protect privacy
**All social activities in the region are suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however the field colleagues are in contact with the families to provide guidance and support.