“My earliest memories are blood-stained sheets, violence, and feelings of isolation,” says Brittanie Richardson, survivor of child sexual trauma and founder and Executive Director of Art and Abolition; an organization based in Nairobi, Kenya that targets girls under the age of 15 who have experienced sexual violence as a result of poverty. Brittanie has dedicated her life to personal and community transformation through the arts. “I was introduced to the arts and something changed for me. It lifted this veil and allowed me to speak and be vulnerable. The arts set me free.” Art and Abolition helps girls in four crucial ways: Foster care, education, art therapy, and economic empowerment. First, they place girls in a safe home, then they sponsor their education, provide healing through artistic mediums already prevalent in their lives, and lastly, whenever possible, they work with the mothers of the girls to help with rehabilitation and job training to assist with family reunification.
Many of the youth that Brittanie encounters share similar stories, ones where they’re raped and sexually violated just to get their basic needs met. “We work with girls who have been raped for a plate of rice and beans or a clean cup of water,” says Richardson. Kenya’s HIV/AIDS epidemic has left a whole generation of kids as orphans. Recent statistics reveal that out of the 3 million orphans living in Kenya, 47 percent are as a result of HIV/AIDS. Too many children are left to fend for themselves, and girls, in particular, are forced into life-threatening situations out of desperation spawned from extreme poverty. Art and Abolition wants to provide an alternative path and is holding a light that’s being magnified by each girl’s healing and restoration.
Richardson’s journey towards connection and authenticity with the girls has been a work in progress. She admits that in order to serve her girls to the best of her ability, she had to start with being honest and authentic with herself. This meant connecting with her childhood pain and sharing her vulnerability which was a struggle. In her beginning work with the girls, Brittanie admits to hiding behind a mask of spirituality and turning the girls into “projects” rather than fully connecting with them as human beings with shared trauma. This changed when Brittany met Amina, a young girl she worked with in the early days of her program. “Amina is the kind of person that doesn’t let you hide. I wanted to make her a project, but she wouldn’t let me.” Brittanie recalls how Amina was more standoffish than the other girls and regarded her with an inherent mistrust until one day she asked Brittanie a question that changed both of their paths forever.
“Can you please buy me washing powder?” Young Amina reluctantly walked up to Brittanie one day and asked her with the seriousness of an adult. She then lifted her dress and revealed a blood-soaked torso. After repeated questioning, Amnia broke down and shared her story. She spoke of how she was being hidden in a suitcase on Saturday nights and smuggled into the local nightclub. She was then handcuffed to a bed in a room upstairs and repeatedly raped as beer was guzzled down her throat. Amina said she wasn’t being paid for these nights because she wasn’t “good enough” to earn money yet. “Now I can’t stop bleeding, and I don’t have any money for washing powder,” Amina explained. This was a definitive moment for Richardson’s work, knowing that sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is be fully present, hear their story, and respond to the call. Amina has since been adopted by Brittanie and is one of the success stories of the program, but many girls aren’t so lucky. Art and Abolition has hundreds of girls on their waiting list and what stops them from extending their work to more girls is an extreme lack of resources.
The organization has been operating on a limited budget and recently lost their summer housing for the girls. Art and Abolition is raising funds to cover one year’s rent for a new beautiful house they’d like to make a home. They’re working on a strict timeline before the girls get out of boarding school for the summer, and they’re raising $16,000 in 16 days to achieve their goal. “We were created to be liberators and abolitionists. Free people who free people. The light in all of us allows us to live that out,” says Richardson. In the spirit of liberation and abolition, please spread the word about this movement and donate what you can to help Art and Abolition reach to its goal. Because #everygirl has the right to freedom and dignity. Click here for to support the cause.
All images: Courtesy Art & Abolition