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“There, they Help”

In 2014, Salesian missionaries first opened the Don Bosco Center in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- and word quickly spread among the local population that “there, they help.”

This collective wisdom is the reason that a former child bride known as “Mother Teresa” came knocking on the door. Consequently, the Don Bosco Center is the reason that she and her three youngest children have successfully begun a new life.

Teresa’s story is far too common in a country where 72 percent of rural households live in extreme poverty, and where pervasive gender inequality and discrimination means that girls and women have few, if any, rights. Her mother, widowed when Teresa was six, first sent her to work on a farm in order to help support the family. Eventually, she brought 14-year-old Teresa to Bukavu for “a visit” that ended in her forced marriage to an abusive older man.

After giving birth to nine children, three of whom did not survive, Teresa’s husband abandoned her and their surviving children. With no education and no family connections, she was forced to earn a meager daily wage by hauling and selling heavy sacks of sand. When this work made her ill, Teresa’s two youngest daughters -- Marcelline, 12, and Jeanne, 10 -- dropped out of school in order to collect water and trade it at the local market for a few pieces of fruit. (Her three oldest sons had left home to search for their father).

Without meaningful assistance, Teresa feared, her family would face a lifetime of difficulty and despair. That’s when she remembered hearing about the Don Bosco Center -- and sought help from our Salesian missionaries there.

Although he did not have space to house Teresa and her children, Father Piero Gavioli responded to their urgent need for assistance. He rented a room for the family, connected them to medical care, enrolled the girls in school and provided seed money so that Teresa could start a small business selling dried beans at the market. Today, Marcelline and Jeanne are training as seamstresses, a profession that will enable them to support themselves and the family over the long term.

“Now, a different future is possible for these poor souls!” says Fr. Piero.

A Safe Haven for Vulnerable Girls

They are called “vidomegon” -- young girls sold into slavery by their desperately impoverished parents. By day, they toil in private homes and public markets; at night, they endure physical exploitation and violence, psychological abuse and despair.

Hundreds of these girls exist on society’s margins in Cotonou, Benin: victims not of civil war or strife, but of the country’s colonial legacy. In the past, rural families would entrust their daughters to tutors in the city, where their opportunities for educational achievement and future success were far greater. Today, however, the practice has lost its noble aim; instead of lifting girls out of poverty, it threatens to forever trap them in its ruthless cycle.

This is why, since 2001, Salesian missionaries in Contonou have been working to address this critical issue. At Barra Vidomegon, a daytime reception center situated amid the city’s busy Dantopka market, girls discover a safe haven, meals, recreational activities and more. Ultimately, staff at Barra Vidomegon (operated by the Salesian Sisters) hope to reunite these child slaves with their families, provide family counseling and attempt to change cultural norms. Then the Salesian relationship continues through educational opportunities so these young women can one day be reintegrated into society.

“Once they enter the center, we provide information about vocational training opportunities available at the nearby Maison de L’Esperance (House of Hope),” explains Father Mark Hyde, director of Salesian Missions. “There, girls can study to become bakers, cooks and pastry chefs -- skills that will permanently get them off the street and out of the low-cost labor environment.”

In order to more fully address the girls’ needs, and boost the effectiveness of the Maison de L’Esperance programs, Salesian Sisters plan -- in the immediate future -- to construct a new dormitory that will house as many as 70 former vidomegon. In addition to safe overnight shelter, these girls will receive the psychological and social support they need to fully overcome their traumas and become independent adults.

“Programs such as these are a crucial component to our work around the world, especially in relation to poverty eradication,” says Fr. Mark. “When we teach girls marketable skills, and educate them about their rights, they grow into women and mothers who can support themselves and their families, and make sound decisions about their futures.

“Because our Salesian Sisters live and work in Contonou themselves,” he continues, “they were able to quickly identify -- and meet -- the unique needs of these young girls, who now anticipate much brighter futures!”

News & Updates

“There, they Help”

In 2014, Salesian missionaries first opened the Don Bosco Center in Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- and word quickly spread among the local population that “there, they help.”

Read More »

A Safe Haven for Vulnerable Girls

They are called “vidomegon” -- young girls sold into slavery by their desperately impoverished parents. By day, they toil in private homes and public markets; at night, they endure physical exploitation and violence, psychological abuse and despair.

Read More »

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