Their bright smiles and cheerful appearances conceal the grim pasts of the young girls at the Mary Help of Christians House in Negombo, Sri Lanka. These girls are former child soldiers, trying to heal and move on from devastating physical and emotional wounds.
Mary Help of Christians is home to 173 girls who were soldiers during the country's civil war. They are the innocent victims of a 25-year civil war that ended in 2009 and generated more than 200,000 young refugees. Today, these girls are safe but their recovery process will be a long road.
Few people realize that 40% of the children kidnapped by guerrilla fighters and forced to fight in the war were girls. The youngest were enslaved as maids to cook and clean for the soldiers. As they got older, the girls were forced to act as spies and informers. By the time they reached puberty, many of the girls were trapped into abusive and humiliating marriages with guerrilla leaders.
"The trauma undergone during the war has left indelible marks," explains Salesian Sister Maryann Fernando, the director of the home. "Many of the girls suffer from psychological difficulties linked to depression. Others have poorly treated war wounds, which they have borne for years."
To make matters worse, when these girls returned home after the war — often with children of their own — they were often rejected by their villages because of their forced marriages.
Realizing that these girls had no place to turn, the Salesian Sisters were determined to do whatever they could to lend a helping and compassionate hand. In addition to offering the basics of food, clothing and shelter, the Sisters are focused on the physical and psychological health of the girls. Their dedication and support has enabled the girls to come a long way in the past few years. Nearly half of them are attending classes between the 6th and 8th grade levels, while several of the older girls are taking professional courses.
It may take years — or even a lifetime — for the girls to recover from their deep wounds, but their outlook gets brighter each day thanks to the Salesian Sisters and caring friends like you who support our work.
*Children in the photo have been changed for their protection.