Her small frame swayed with the gentle breeze as she stood in front of me. If I did not know her, I would think that she was only seven years old. She was four feet tall and weighed 27 kilograms (60 pounds). Maggie is almost 11 years old. According to growth charts, girls her age should be eight inches taller and 10 kilograms (22 pounds) heavier. For 10 minutes, she stood in front of me tapping her tiny fingers against her pointed chin. She was trying to solve a simple math equation – what is 10 divided by four?
Maggie was born in one of the most obscure villages tucked away in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Over three years ago, our rescue officers determinedly traveled by bus, motorbike, and foot for over half a day to get to her. Maggie belonged to the Rade ethnic minority group of region, although she does not speak the dialect. Her parents, who still reside there, live in destitute poverty surviving on fractions of rice and scraps of whatever legumes or fish they can find from the lake nearby.
“What is 10 divided by four, Maggie?” I asked. She scrunched her nose and said, “two”. The other children standing around her shot me a glance. “Are you sure?” She gave me a blank stare. “Here, take these 10 packets of gummy bears and divvy them equally amongst four groups,” I instructed. She cupped the 10 packets in her two hands and again, stood there dazed and confused. After several minutes of gentle encouragement, she finally answered, “10 divided by four is two and half, Auntie Angela!”. “Great! Now what is two and a half multiplied by four?” Blank stare.
Maggie’s odds for survival were stacked against her before she was even born. To start, her mom is about the same height and weighs no more than 10 pounds heavier than Maggie. Starving, her mother did not have food to feed herself let alone a growing baby inside of her. This lack of nourishment continued into Maggie’s childhood.
"What do you eat for breakfast at home, Maggie?" the other children asked her once. "I open my mouth and pretend to eat air". This might just be the most miserable and heartbreaking thing I have ever heard.
Maggie also never had stimulation in early childhood. The only school in her village was too far from reach. She never had the chance to learn how to read and write properly. Whatever play she imagined occurred in the dull, broken-down shack she called home. Some days, she aimlessly wandered muddied rice fields, oblivious to the real living monsters that lurked there.
At the age of seven, Maggie was raped beneath an old tree. Its wide green leaves spread over the scene of a merciless attack and violation of a small child. At that time, her body was half the size of what it is today. She was left for dead. When our rescue team carried her away, her limp body could barely walk.
This is a photo of Maggie the day our team rescued her from her village. Photo taken from our partners, One Body Village, Inc. (USA).
The barbaric trauma that Maggie experienced would stunt the development of any healthy child. For Maggie, she was already cursed with a negative start to life through no fault of her own. She is now broken in so many ways – physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s no wonder that nearly four years since her rescue and attending school she still cannot do simple math.
The only thing Maggie knows for sure is that when she closes her eyes, she sees a tree. She used to draw me stunning trees of all colours. All the trees would look the same – a big trunk with long, overreaching branches. I was in awe of her artistic abilities. I was delighted to receive these drawings until I found out why she only drew trees. Now, I hold back tears of sorrow every time she starts drawing or painting her beautiful trees.
Maggie’s story is not a one off. Every child under the care of One Body Village were dealt losing hands from birth. Poverty, malnutrition, poor development and low education would hinder any individual from success. Add on the most depraved sexual violence to the mix and it would break the strongest among us. Acute and chronic pain, nightmares, bed-wetting, depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, defiance, sexualized behaviours, impulsiveness, attachment issues, and low self-esteem are common experiences of our children. Worse yet, traumatic stress reactions often persist into adulthood.
Our work requires a lot of patience and understanding. Rebuilding their lives starts by treating the children with love, dignity, and respect in an open, supportive, and educational environment. Our program is unique, because we created a family environment for them. The children are encouraged to participate in all decisions that involve their care. We promote positive discipline and positive reinforcement rather than harsh and intimidating punishments that prevails in Vietnamese culture. By doing so, we help each child regain her human dignity, realize her self-worth, restore her self-esteem. Fate may not have dealt them the right cards. However, our goal is to teach them to play the cards to reach their maximum potential.
Maggie looked at me with tears erupting from her eyes. She was frustrated that she could not multiply two and half by four. “It’s OK, sweet girl. Let’s start over”, I said.
Maggie starting to paint one of her beautiful trees. Photo taken from our partners, One Body Village, Inc. (USA).