When I came to Bolivia, I had the idea that I was coming to fight poverty. I thought that that poverty would take the face of a lack of material possessions. The other great ambition I had was to support the fight against violence.

Although I have seen poverty, and I am supporting those who are suffering from violence, the reality of what I am seeing is quite different than what I had imagined.

Instead of seeing abject poverty of material things only, I am also seeing a poverty that comes when one robs you of your soul—when one takes away the essence of what makes you who you are and when you doubt the worth of your very existence.

This poverty comes in the form of violence of the worst kind: sexual violence. When one is abused sexually, there is an experience of physical violence, but the violation goes much deeper than this. One is violated in the worst way physically, and with that comes psychological pain that typically lasts long after the physical scars have faded.

Although a misconception of sexual violence is that perpetrators are seeking sexual pleasure, the reality is instead motivated by power and control, as in those who commit domestic violence. For this reason, after a calculated cycle of coercion and manipulation, the victim has scars that say “I am not good enough,” or worse yet, “I deserve this.”

Coming back to a normal life after such scalding experiences, that are usually repeated over a period of months or years, is not an easy process. When a victim becomes a survivor by denouncing the crime and breaking the silence, the long road to recovery has begun. With kind support from family and friends who may help even though they don’t understand, wounds begin to heal. Hopefully with the help of professional guidance, the survivor learns to rebuild what has been taken away, and creates a new life with the determination to discover a renewed sense of self-worth.

As I live in this world full of reminders of self-loss, I have unique glimpses of hope. One of these human examples of possibility comes in the life of Clementina, a woman who is a survivor of sexual violence, and whose bravery astounds me.

I met Clementina when I was encouraged to interview teachers of the new salon in Chilimarca, and over these past months have been honored with her friendship. Each time I walk into the salon, I am greeted by the warmth of her smile, and am reminded of how a room can be lit by the beauty that shines from within.

Among all of her qualities, those that touch me the most are her strength and humility. I am saddened when I think that her humility may be a cost of the violence, or that she doesn’t realize her own true worth. However, I am encouraged by her strength and the way she has come out of her pain by lifting up her students who are also survivors with the vision of creating new lives of happiness and of hope.

For more information on the new salon project, and the survivors of sexual violence who are apprenticing and working there, including Clementina’s story, please see attached.

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One survivor practicing painting nails on another while apprenticing.

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CUBE and CEV staff supporting survivors at the ribbon cutting ceremony of the new salon.

To donate to Valerie’s mission fund, visit franciscanmissionservice.org/Valerie_Ellis or mail a check made out to Franciscan Mission Service, PO Box 29034 Washington, DC 20017.