Young women at risk
Choosing to do, choosing to be
Jacqueline Roberts (EDUCO Africa)
A wilderness experience for a group from a juvenile institution experience adult acknowledgement of an intrinsic human need
Our Youth At Risk Project moved into a much needed area of work, that of young women at risk. The term "Youth at Risk" more often than not carries associations of boys and young men, rather than girls and young women. How many of us think in terms of young women when we hear of youth placed in reformatories by the juvenile justice system? Do we recognise young women as youth who have been denied the opportunity to develop their inherent potential and who have thus resorted to anti-social acting-out in order to express their experience of life and gain a sense of belonging and power? So many young women have been deeply scarred and disempowered by our country's political legacy and the abuses inherent in society, and they react to this as vehemently as do the young men. They are also entitled to the recognition and opportunities for healing and empowerment which have for some while now been made available to young men at risk.
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Mark, Nokozola, Shakes and I, all Educo staff, had arrived at Koppie Alleen, De Hoop Nature Reserve, the day before the arrival of the group. There was a shared and unspoken anticipation amongst us. I was aware of being on the periphery of a journey in which I was to be both guide and journeyer. With any rite of passage into wilderness, participant and facilitator alike emerge with a new experiencing of Self, Other and the Earth. And so it was to be for each of us ...
On their arrival, the participants of this all-female group were clearly experiencing a mix of excitement, expectation, apprehension and guarded reticence. With the course now in process, we called them to sit in a circle, thirteen young women aged 15 to 18 years, all dressed in regulation blue and yellow track suits, and three agency staff, all women.
Circles of resistance
The circle is an ancient call to creating community, to speaking one's truth and to being respectfully heard. Why was it then, that circles to which the young women were called for such speaking and listening, created instead passivity and powerfully silent resistance? And yet, how often during the course I watched as they created, spontaneously, their own circles of singing, drumming, sharing of stories and laughter. It became clear that an otherwise routine request to meet as a community evoked a very negative experience for these young women. This increasingly generalised to almost any attempt to facilitate the process. We watched spontaneous, creative enjoyment switch in an instant to silent, angry resistance. This evoked in me feelings of frustration and increasing anger, feelings shared by fellow staff members. So we stood back and looked at what was happening. We analysed the phenomenon in the context of the life experiences from which these young women came.
Choices and rules
We watched how their capacity to make choices in their lives was severely limited by rules and routines implemented by agency staff. We imagined what this must feel like. What emerged for us was an acute awareness of the fundamental disempowerment experienced by the young women before us. Young lives whose coming to fruition has been so horribly blighted by family violence, abandonment, gang murders and rape. For them, the positive experience normally inherent in their capacity to be powerful in the world is severely damaged. Labelled as antisocial, they are committed to an institution by a system which reinforces their lack of power and fails to recognise this one reality: if one's positive power is denied, how else to be powerful except negatively? The only means by which most of the young women felt they could determine the unfolding of their wilderness experience was through passive-aggressive acting-out. It was inordinately powerful. It certainly rocked the process, and gave each resisting individual a taste of her individuality and strength. We spoke of this with all of them, recognising what they were doing and why. Then we started to give them choices, major choices which would determine the schedule of the programme and also the experience of achievement and mastery evoked by the challenge of the 4-day hike. At a crucial point, Mark posed the question: "Do you choose to continue to the end of the hike, or do you choose to remain at this camp for an extra day, so not completing the challenge?"
"I will walk."
After two days of passive resistance to the hiking, requiring encouragement, cajoling and often firm commands to keep walking, the response to this offer of choice was phenomenal. The group sat in silence for a moment. One voice responded: "I will walk". All echoed this call. The first to have spoken retracted her decision: "I won't walk". We saw this as a determined claiming of power and individuality, not as a decision not to walk. The next day we all walked the final phase of the hike, thus mastering the challenge. Something had shifted in the way of being of these young women.
We began to weave this theme of choice and power into the fabric of the remaining days of the course. A positive energy began to flow. The image of a young woman running up to base-camp from the beach in our last hours before departure, eyes shining with tears of joy, still moves me deeply. In her final farewell to Mother Earth and Sea from whom she had drawn courage and healing, she was gifted with the sight of a school of dolphin playing in the waves in front of her. She spoke of her absolute determination to believe in the good within her and strive for a life of respect and love — and a dashing red Uno Fire car! The emergence of power as the central theme of this course is reinforced by the song which these young women brought with them, and which became their chant:
"The power of love, ooh, ooh, Is moving around the
The power of love, ooh, ooh, Is moving around the world;
Can you feel it, Can you feel it! Yes, I feel it, Yes, I feel it;
Power, power, ooh, What a wonderful power ... "
They reclaimed their positive power. It would now remain for others to honour this in them.