As they called her name…Catalina…my heart pulsed. She tentatively walked to the small, makeshift podium in the IJM office of Guatemala City.
IJM is a human rights organization fighting for justice for the poor. Much of their casework focuses on human trafficking for the sex trade and other forms of slavery, as well as all sexual violence against children. The Guatemalan office deals exclusively with sexual abuse of young children whose photos I can’t share for their protection, but so wish I could.
I struggled hard to make eye contact with Catalina as she approached. She looked down and sideways, almost hiding from the attention. I wanted to hug her, to put her at ease, but knew I was not permitted to make that first move for physical touch. I could only respond which was against the burning desire in me to grab, and hold, and affirm.
Catalina, like every girl in this room, had a story.
My earlier involvement with IJM left me expecting to meet very young girls trafficked into the sex trade, but I was not prepared for this. The betrayal many girls in Guatemala City encounter is the sexual abuse from their daddy. The cultural acceptance of this in many communities disturbed me at my core.
Their story was one of trauma and repeated abuse. Some of the girls in this room were only as tall as my hipbone. Others faced those already difficult tween years with injustices that will take a lifetime to overcome. Each story was different, yet the same.
I looked around the over-stuffed room filled by the precious faces of young girls who eagerly anticipated this day.
They wore their Sunday best. One child pulled her hair off of her face with 4 ponytails just like my daughter did when she was 7.
They were excited and ready for The Ceremony.
This Pinning Ceremony is sacred, and I felt it by simply being in the room. It represents much more than simply receiving a pin.
This ceremony comes after a girl has testified against her perpetrator. Rather than shame and re-victimization, they are celebrated for the bravery in speaking their story. Their courage marks the beginning of healing and restoration.
This sacred moment brings light to where darkness once reigned, and hope to a place of brokenness.
As Catalina approached me, I separated the pin so I could attach it to her shirt. I soaked up the compassion in her social worker’s voice as she spoke words of truth over this child. Her lawyer also applauded her bravery.
My eyes filled with tears as I attached the pin, “I am so proud of you, Catalina. You are courageous and strong!” And with that I got the hug I had been longing for.
My heart ached for the girls but the next moment simply broke it in two.
Each mother in the room, one by one, read a letter they had written to their daughter. I couldn’t imagine the words I would speak over my own daughter in this situation.
Every mom wept as she read the stirrings of her heart over her child. The Spanish words came so fast, I could no longer follow along, yet I understood the mixture of pain and pride perfectly.
It was almost too much for me.
The love of a mother is an amazing thing. It fights. It protects. It sacrifices greatly. I watched as they held each other in a way that said “we survived.”
I was frozen by the strength evident in this bond.
As the last girl left, she turned to wave one last good-bye. My eyes locked on that well-deserved pin attached to her shirt, and I shook my head yes.
The pin reads, “I am a Hero”.
I’d love for you to learn more about IJM.
My first trip with the International Justice Mission was almost a decade ago. I’ve seen their ongoing fight against injustice first-hand in Cambodia, the Philippines, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, and now Guatemala. I’ve held 6 year-olds rescued from brothels. The organization is extremely dear to my heart. These videos capture some of the difference they are making in lives around the world.
Talk about it. Share it. Join the conversation against human trafficking and slavery.
Just 2 weeks ago, 333 people were rescued from slavery from a brick factory in India. Here’s their update.
This is the story of another girl in Guatemala City named Griselda.
A story of 6 girls being rescued from inside a brothel wall.
NBC report on Cambodian girls as young as 5 being used as prostitutes