Perspective: Quiet champions of social causes & forgotten girls

Perspective: Quiet champions of social causes
The Little Match Girl. Source: Lamp and Book
'That poor little girl,' she said to me, 'alone in the world with no mother'. 'She's got a father, she's not alone,' I said churlishly. 'Ah, that's not the same thing at all. Ye wouldn't understand. A girl needs a mother's love. Ye can tell she's missing it, she had the look of a lost child.' - Araby by Gretta Mulrooney
By Erica Bartle

On arrival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, my husband and I visit a cafe frequented by some of the country's elite. Their food and drink are served to them by girls with whom they'd not usually associate. They are outcasts in aprons with pretty faces. 

Many of them are from minority groups and poverty-stricken rural families, who are more likely to be the unwitting victims of human trafficking rings. The odds were stacked against them to begin with and someone took advantage of the situation. These girls have been sexually abused.

They are the forgotten girls of Cambodia and its bordering South-East Asian nations: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam. One girl, I am told, was set upon by 15 Japanese men on a "tour". To satisfy their depraved natures, these men betray these girls, their wives, and their souls. How can they sleep at night? Everything inside of you wants to scream, "This is not right!". 

And it's not, but because the problem is endemic, deeply entrenched and part of the global economy, it is hard to see how we can win. The Poverty. Corruption. Hierarchical systems. Discrimination. A cultural burden dating back to Pol Pot and a developing world that sees cities thrive and the rural world limp along far behind. These are not easily overcome.

But there are brave ones here fighting for those who are too weak to stand against the insurmountable oddsTheir tactics are discreet: is it about rescuing each one (one by one) from the cusp of death, the clenches of the adversary, and nursing her back to life.  

Gently, gently putting back the pieces and giving her a future. Making things right. Protecting her until she is strong enough to protect herself and ready to take flight. Giving her work, a wage, a hope.

The girls are so fragile that it can take years to get them to the point where they can be productive in the world again; where they can trust; when they can smile. The psychological damage is so great that sometimes they just switch off, retreating into the same imagined worlds they created to escape their abusive situations. They cannot handle a lot of stress. 

While each girl's story is her own, there is a narrative common to them: they have been victims within a system, a structure, a world that has actively worked to oppress them; to rob them of their freedom; to keep them very, very small and only shadows of what we might call human. No dignity.

For these girls, trauma occurred in early life, as their identities were taking shape. They were baby birds yet to take flight. Pushed out off the nest prematurely by someone who should have known better, they are sold onto the human trafficking market. Some so that their families might withstand the poverty; others because they has already been abused in their communities

Scars, stigma, shame, mistrust, fear... all these need to be attended to in the rehabilitative process, as they regain their strength and a sense of identity. They are permitted to question the existence of evil and harm in the world, and to seek to understand and address its sources, accept imperfection and break the patterns in which they judge themselves for their circumstances.

Cambodia is not alone in the plight of its young, its poor, its inequality. Did you realise there are two million Australians living on the poverty line?

Giving to the poor; addressing poverty

Born in 1952 in London, Gretta Mulrooney took a degree in English at the University of Ulster and lived for a few years in Dublin, where she worked as a hospital cleaner, a plastics riveter (fitting together Guiness signs) and teaching English, before returning to England to teach and then take up social work.  

Araby was her first published adult novel. The late Maeve Binchy called it "wonderful". Like J.K. Rowling's first adult book for fiction, The Casual Vacancy, in which social issues are tackled with literary flair and without sentimentalism, there is something of the well-trodden path about Araby, not unlike the short story of the same name by James Joyce published in 1914, which illuminated the squalid conditions on North Richmond Street, Dublin. 

Through the first-person narration by the character Rory Keenan, a cynical physiotherapist whose embarrassing, gregarious, eccentric, unpredictable, overweight, opinionated mother Kitty is the bane of his existence, we are taken into childhood memories experienced by Rory in England and Ireland, and back to the present tense in which we find the family readying Kitty for her imminent death.

"Twelve years after publication, this is also about a past moment in Irish history where family and economics came together joyfully for a change," said one reviewer, Margaret Carroll at, pointing to the commentary on the Irish welfare system.

"The details are right and the contrast between restrained, Anglicised son with his 'caring profession' and the realities of his needy mother is beautifully balanced."

The chapter that stands out most to me is the case of Kitty putting her Catholic faith into action, in a sort of redemptive interaction with a young, ginger-haired girl in a grubby dress named Erin she and Rory encounter on a park bench by the River Lee (Rory is at this time aged 11). Her father has gone off to sell the horse that will put food on their plates; her mother died some years before.

The girl is invited to lunch, eats a whole plate of fish and chips followed by two helpings of trifle and three glasses of milk. The food bill settled, they move onto a department store where the eight-year-old is fitted with a pink and blue dress, matching cardigan and socks, shiny black shoes and white underwear. To finish the day, they take in a film and then bid the girl farewell.

'I had a grand time,' says little Erin, buttoning her cardigan. 'The best time ever.'

An Australian story

While all very Pollyanna, the story – this particular anecdote – reminded me of a good friend of mine who has recently taken it upon herself to bestow charity on a child at her daughter's school. This little girl's mother had a drug addiction and suffers with mental impairment; her father, while a lovely young man, is out of work.

Not surprisingly, the little girl has some social issues to contend with, and also some behavioural problems. Not only is she lacking a permanent home and inappropriately outfitted for school, but she has on occasions been ostracised from play and parties and activities by the other children and their parents.

"The majority of parents don't make any effort to speak to this family," my friend tells me. "They are not rude or mean, but they keep their distance. It is shameful. What's interesting is the way affluent, middleclass people avoid getting involved with those outside their social sphere. In excluding this child, parents send a clear message that it is okay to exclude someone because they're different."

Compelled to take action, my friend took it upon herself to provide the girl with some wholesome interaction and food in her own home, during which time she's found her to be much more pleasant than the other spoiled little girls!

"Her dad is nice, so I don't despair, but I just think every kid deserves a mum to help them get neat and tidy for school."

Speaking to The Guardian about her new book, J.K Rowling – who for a time endured poverty and single parenthood herself – talks about one of her central characters, Terri Weedon, "a prostitute, junkie and lifelong casualty of chilling abuse, struggling to stay clean to stop social services taking her three-year-old son, Robbie, into care.

"The poor are discussed as this homogenous mash, like porridge," says Rowling. "The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people. They talk about feckless teenage mothers looking for a council flat. Well, how tragic is it that that's what someone regards as the height of security or safety? What would your life be like if that's the only possible path you can see for yourself?"

Rowling notes that in the UK, lone-parent families are a little worse off since the 2010 election. "But it's not a 'little bit' when you're in that situation. Even a tenner a week can make such a vast, vast difference."

It's much the same situation in Australia.

Poverty and its repercussions

In the Poverty in Australia report recently published by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), it is found that the proportion of people in poverty rose by approximately one third of a percent from 2003 to 2010, though declined between 2007 and 2010, due to the depressing of median incomes during the GFC and increase in pension payments for single people.

It found one in eight Australians, including one in six children were living at or below the poverty line. These include Cherie, a single mum raising an eight-year-old, trying to provide the basics, juggling part-time wage earning, fighting persistent thoughts of not being good enough and struggling to pay rent, bills and basic living expenses.

"I have had to swallow my pride at times and turn to family and charities for that extra bit of help when a big bill comes in or an emergency comes up, to prevent from being chucked out on the streets," she says.

"Still, I feel so lucky that I am alive and have a healthy, beautiful son that I will watch grow into an adult who, despite the struggles, will one day give back to our community for the support he is now being afforded." What Cherie is doing is fighting poverty in itself on the frontline.

The poverty line, by Australian standards, is $358 per week for an adult; $752 for a couple with two children. Women are at slightly higher risk of poverty, reflecting lower employment opportunities, lower investment incomes in retirement and wages and the greater likelihood that they are engaged in unpaid caring roles.

About half of all children living in poverty are in sole parent families, and one quarter of people in sole parent families are living below the poverty line. Lone parents and their children are at more elevated risk of poverty. This, says Australian Council for Social Services CEO Cassandra Goldie, "makes the Federal Government's recent cuts to payments for sole parents all the more disturbing".

The Report notes, "Personal stories show that people in poverty are not all the same. They come from diverse backgrounds and there are many different reasons for poverty. Some come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some have long-term illnesses or disabilities, others were once well off but a family crisis or illness changed their lives for the worse".

In short, poverty can happen to anyone, but it can be generational and geographical. As Sarah Ferguson showed us in her story for Four Corners, 'Growing Up Poor', in concentrated places of disadvantage such as Clayborne, a "welfare ghetto" in Sydney's south-west. The kids there have had promises broken by dysfunctional parents.

"When you make promises to someone that's really, really young, it's hard for them to forget it," says one young boy, "it's kind of imprinted into their brain forever." There is a belief that "most people don't have a happy ending", as shared by the young Jessica who skips on school. And, yet, there is some hope:

"If bad things didn't happen, we wouldn't know what a good thing was," says one mum. "If you want something that bad, you'll go for it," says another, who dismisses the constant labelling (not helpful for the kids).

The Poverty in Australia report notes: "One thing that unites people who do not have access to a decent standard of living is that they aspire to a 'normal' life where income is secure, they are respected and have a place in society".

Toni Wren, an employment and social policy consultant, delivered an Anti-Poverty Week address titled 'Help parents into jobs to end child poverty' on October 19 for the Benevolent Society, reminding us that Australia is the second wealthiest country in the world behind Switzerland on an average per person basis.

Yet 2.3 million Australians live in poverty.

Equality in the egalitarian nation

Pointing to research by Professor Peter Whiteford, one of our leading social policy academics, Wren says that childhood poverty is strongly associated with lower educational attainment, one of the main predictors of poverty later in life and in Australia it's harder to move out of the bottom or the top of the earnings distribution – in short, children inherit poverty or wealth.

According to Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, published in 2012, "living in a jobless family increases the probability that a child will have behavioural problems by 13 percentage points and increases the probability of having conduct and emotional problems and hyperactivity."

One study published study by the Social Policy Research Centre at the UNSW, cited by Wren, found that kids are copping the brunt of poverty issues. Aged 11 to 17, they will often opt out of further studies because they don't want to put their families under more financial stress; they protect their parents from blame and social stigma; they were reluctant to join sports teams or partake in school excursions.

"We do irreparable harm when we turn it into a question of individual behaviour, blaming people for their own poverty," notes Dr John Falzon, CEO, St Vincent de Paul Society National Council in Poverty in Australia. "You don't build people up by putting them down. You don't help them get work by forcing them into poverty."

A hand up is what many people need – vocational education and on-the-job training, which correlates to employment, particularly post-school qualifications. Educating mothers, particularly single mothers, helps to lift their kids out of poverty, too, notes Wren.

But in order to do this there are significant hurdles, including boosting confidence and addressing health issues, living conditions, social acceptance, particularly insofar as domestic violence against women is concerned.

So the disadvantaged need spokespeople, advocates, silent bidders and champions; people who will not walk to the other side of the street or look away at the Little Match Girl starving to death and say, "Not my problem!", "Where are her parents?!", perhaps unaware of their own great poverty of spirit.

For many of us, there is a vast chasm between out intentions and our doings; our beliefs and our actions. Reconciling these can cause a lot of anguish but there is surely a blessing to be found in the complete and unfettered surrender of self-will to the goodness of society as a whole, or even one little girl.

Giving till it hurts

Mother Teresa once said, "I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love", knew this only too well. 

We all have a role to play in the betterment of this country and this world, however large, however small – and oftentimes we begrudge that we cannot do more, or get overwhelmed, when what we really ought to do is start the day saying, 'What small thing might I do to add something positive to someone else's situation?'.

That thing might be reporting a story elucidating the plight of people whose voices we never hear (such as Clarion Award winner Leisa Scott writing on the NDIS, or Kristina Keneally writing about 'The Forgotten Ones' in The Monthly); it may be volunteering for a group that tugs at your heart; it might be flying off overseas to help the victims of a natural disaster; it might be sharing a coffee with a lonely person in your community; it might be picking flowers from your own garden and creating a display at the old peoples' home.

Just getting educated about the world can help. Either way, we have to be attentive to playing our particular part. No one is the same. If it were so, nothing would get done. And there is so much to do!

We must surely make the most of the opportunities that come our way to connect, give, stand up for what's right, make someone's day or donate a coin (or a thousand-and-two) so the people who can do do. Just being nice in a world that can be cruel and harsh is enough. Or turning up when no one else wants to know the story to say, "It's alright, it's going to be okay".

In this sense, the media can really play a huge part – making us aware that life is actually not about us, but how we handle each and every assignment and test we're given. We might fail sometimes, but all the while we become better able at handling things – and, in doing that, quiet champions of humanity.

It is always wonderful to read about the recipients of Pride of Australia medals – those Aussies who have gone over and above in the call of duty, such as medical research graduate Jeremy Baldwin who has worked on a project screening rural communities in Ecuador for Chagas disease, and created a "mobile printing van" to boost literacy in Honduras.

I have met and read about many wonderful people of late who have been thrown a curve ball in life they didn't see coming. One such lady is Natalie Bird, who spearheaded the first Australian sensory-friendly movie screening for kids on the Autism spectrum in Cairns. Natalie is strong and determined and wishes that one day she might be able to tell her son, "I did the best I could to make the world better for you".

A quiet defiance

Softly spoken, luminously skinned Virginia Lonsdale is an ethereal presence, but she’s not afraid to stand her ground. The author behind an ABC Radio National Letter of the Week, Ms Lonsdale is a wife, mother, passionate advocate of mindful parenting and proponent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). In her letter, she wrote:

We have had the chance to meet other parents who have a child with a disability and see how they have used creativity, imagination, vision and smarts to lead regular and yet imaginative lives. As for me, he has brought out dormant and hidden gifts in teaching, parenting, learning, advocacy and being fully present. 

Virginia is a few years into her journey, with her husband, of raising a child with Down syndrome (Trisomy 21). And the way she handles this is remarkable – full of dignity and integrity. But we must be aware of the added financial pressures and emotional strain that comes with raising a child with a disability and how easily we forget that anyone of us might find ourselves in the same situation.

How would we approach the task? With gusto and positivity or bemoaning what could have been? I honestly don't know how I would react, only to say that without people like Virginia publicly championing the positive aspects of parenting children with disabilities, it would be a very lonely.

To me, this is as valiant as Rosa Parks standing up for what she believed in on a bus, or Anne Frank communicating through her journal to us as her world was flipped on its head, Malala Yousafzai (who Newsweek called "The Bravest Girl In The World") championing female education in her country, or Queen Esther who saved the Jews from imminent persecution in Old Testament times.

If these girls, women and men can do it against all odds, in the face of persecution, the Nazis and the Taliban, then surely we too can find the resolve to make a positive difference, stand up for what we believe in and not bemoan our circumstances?

It is not necessarily to be done in the loud and shouty way to which we have become culturally accustomed. A quiet resolve might be all it involves to make the world in which you live a better place. "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world," said the quixotic Anne Frank.

It might sound shrill, but it is a good thing to consider that you can be a part of something bigger by starting small – a champion of social causes just by handling whatever situation, circumstance or task it is you're given with a little loving care to make the world more fair. It might start in your home. Or at school.

One teacher I know was dismayed to find that at a camp out not a single child offered to share a sleeping mat with the child who didn't have one. How can we expect our children to share and see beyond themselves if we are unable to lead? It warms my heart to think that my friend's daughter will grow up to think that Mummy did a nice thing for that poor little girl with the grubby dress.

Every girl and child deserves to feel safe, fed and hopeful about the future. But sometimes the very people who should be protecting them are too wrapped up in their own concerns to see the need. Until someone like Malala Yousafzai, now hospitalised in Birmingham, is shot twice (in the head and neck) and we are jolted from our stupor.

There are tyrannical forces actively working against girls all over the world; from Cambodia to Pakistan and right her in Australia, where perhaps they are all the more subtle. Against these oppressive cultural, political, economic and ideological enemies we have to stand. And those who do are fully deserving of our support.

By just loving more, and seeing beyond ourselves to the those all around us needing care, we too can all be quiet champions of social causes. Let's all ensure we help each other along in this greatest of human quests; forgiving wrongs but never walking past one lest we too be complicit.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in her International Day of the Girl Child address, "May this be the country where every girl is born wanted. Where she grows up free from want and fear. And lives out her years nurtured in dignity and abounding in opportunity."

Let's help nurture all the lost, broken, forgotten little girls back to life and give them a purpose, a passion, a plan and plenty of love so she can withstand all the rainy days, turbulence and lonely times with her head held high and one eye on the possibility of a brighter day. 

See also: Gender and class equality should go hand in hand

Girl With a Satchel