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Indonesian nun a shining light for victims of violence

Sister Yosephina raises awareness of HIV and takes on patriarchal society while restoring hope for battered women

Indonesian nun a shining light for victims of violence
Sister Maria Yosephina Pahlawati from the Congregation of Servants of the Holy Spirit is shown with victims of violence as she teaches them how to recycle waste bottles into plastic flowers that can be sold at market. (Photo supplied)
Ryan Dagur, Jakarta and Ferdinand Ambo, Labuan Bajo
Indonesia

April 17, 2018

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"Santi" faced harsh treatment at the hands of her husband after they started living together in 2012, putting her among the silent ranks of victims of domestic violence in Indonesia.

Four years later, while she was four months pregnant with her second child, she decided to separate and returned to her parents' home in West Manggarai on Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara province.

Another five months went by until a bigger bombshell dropped.

That was when Santi, who requested a pseudonym be used so as not to subject her son to discrimination, learned that her baby boy had been born with HIV.

"I was also diagnosed as being HIV positive, but luckily my daughter got a negative result," the 25-year-old told ucanews.com.

Santi has since lived in a state of constant anxiety as she wrestles with a state of hopelessness and blames herself for what happened to her son.

Desperate for help or at least consolation, she attended a socialization program about violence against women and children in October 2017.

Among the organizers of the event was Sister Maria Yosephina Pahlawati from the Congregation of Servants of the Holy Spirit from Rumah Perempuan (House of Women), an advisory service in West Manggarai.

"I was touched by what she said when I told her of my problems," she said, adding that Sister Yosephine was keen to provide assistance.

Santi is now one of scores of women who benefit from the nun's counseling and receives free antiretroviral pills, as well as help with her accommodation costs.

Barefoot advocacy

Over the past decade, Sister Yosephina has actively engaged in socialization programs like these that see her visit remote villages — sometimes barefoot — to raise awareness about domestic and other forms of violence.

Of East Nusa Tenggara's 5.2 million people, 55.4 percent are Catholic and about 1.1 million live in poverty.

In West Manggarai district, where Sister Yosephina lives, 42 percent of the population lives below the breadline.

Sister Yosephina speaks about violence against woman and children in front of villagers in Welak, West Manggarai district, East Nusa Tenggara province on March 17. (Photo by Ferdinand Ambo)

 

She said fighting Indonesia's still largely patriarchal society is an uphill battle.

"Such conditions exacerbate the vulnerability of women and children, paving the way for them to become victims of exploitation," said the 42-year-old.

Sister Yosephina has assisted 56 trafficking victims, six victims of sexual violence, 14 girls who became pregnant out of wedlock, and 15 victims of domestic violence.

Many women hope to find ways of reconciling with their partners as society still frowns on failed marriages, she said.

"Divorce is never a sought-after solution, especially for those who already have many children," she added.

While she exercises discretion in cases of domestic abuse, she said she has no choice but to report cases of human trafficking and sexual violence to the police.

This has led to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of many perpetrators, she said.

In 2015, two traffickers she reported were each handed prison sentences of two years. In February, a man who raped a five-year-girl got eight years behind bars for his crimes.

Sister Yosephina said human traffickers exploit poor families from rural areas by tricking them into thinking they are sending their daughters off to a better job and a better life.

"Worse still, the government is often complicit in these crimes by falsifying the documents for these so-called migrant workers," she said.

Raising awareness among students is one of main activities Sister Yosephina engages in. In this 2017 file photo she is shown speaking at a school in East Nusa Tenggara province. (Photo supplied)

 

Sister Yosephina said HIV is a growing concern as many of the women who are falsely lured into prostitution have to accept being raped by men day after day, and they do not get to choose whether their "customer" uses a condom.

The disease is then easily spread by the likes of truck drivers and others whose work causes them to travel widely, she said.

"When they return home, they spread it to their partners. So whenever we hold these socialization sessions, I always tell the mothers whose husbands have been traveling a lot to get them both tested immediately to make sure they don't have HIV or AIDS," she said.

Sister Yosephina said she also trains the women to think and act more independently, for example arming them with the skills to turn discarded bottles into plastic flowers that can be sold at market, or teaching them how to process soybeans into meals that can also provide an income.

"We use some of the money from these projects to assist them and other victims," she said.

For Santi, Sister Yosephina plans to get her enrolled on a sewing course.

"I hope that, in the future, they can change their own lives," she said.

Providence guides the way

The nun said dealing with such cases is a constant challenge that requires much stamina as she is effectively "on call" 24 hours a day.

"Sometimes as I'm preparing to sleep I get a sudden phone call asking for help," she said.

On April 7, she rescued three girls who were about to be smuggled to Jakarta. The people responsible had falsified the age of one of the girls, who was underage, implying they had help from local authorities, she said.

Police are now hunting for the chief suspects.

However, there are rewards to the job, such as when she meets someone who has lost hope in life but, through the nun's efforts, decided to fight on.

"It brings me great joy when I meet these women who at first say they want to end their lives but later change and become more optimistic," she said.

Sister Yosephina said she is also moved by how many people step forward to offer help with financing her activities.

"Something greater is moving them," she said. "I truly believe this is God's work. I am only a channel."

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