Family Support Centre in Lae
Jan 22, 2012
Wow. That was my impression of the Family Support Centre (FSC) run by MSF in Lae. After a 45-minute drive from the airport, I was met by a colleague, the cheerful Brazilian expat who supervises the Centre’s psycho-social counseling services, and taken on a tour around the facility. The FSC handles domestic (intimate partner) and sexual violence, child abuse cases, and runs alongside Ministry of Health services at a private stand-alone building at the back of Angau Memorial Hospital. She explained to me that it is extremely important to put patients entering the clinic at ease because many had suffered horrendous abuse and it was important to iterate that the FSC was a safe haven where they could confide their problems and get quality, free treatment. To this end, steps are taken to protect patients’ privacy in the lay-out of the facility, and clean clothes are always kept on hand in case survivors of sexual or physical violence want to take a shower, change out of the clothes that may be covered in blood, and feel clean again. And despite the cliché of this statement (I’m going to say it anyway), the brightness of the hand-painted posters advocating non-violence and respect, is matched only by the cheerful professionalism of all the staff. Despite the corrugated iron building structure and inexpensive plastic furnishings, I felt that the FSC was on par with – if not better – than many clinics I had seen in Malaysia, HK or the UK. After the tour, Ruth, the Project Coordinator realized that I had not had lunch and immediately warmed up some of her famously good vegetarian cooking for me before sitting me down for my briefing – this kindness would be the trend I would see throughout my stay in Lae. The FSC in Lae can be considered to be a mature project. The clinic saw over 2000 patients in 2011 alone and serves as a model to several other emerging FSCs in the country. Likewise, national MSF staff are given specific additional skills training every week, and on the day I arrived, the FSC was in the midst of conducting a 3-days psycho-social counseling training session for different stakeholders. I was able to sit in on part of the training as was impressed to see representatives from the local police force, from a solicitor’s office, and from other NGOs taking part – men and women who could work together to provide support and protection to sexual and domestic violence victims. The training was interactive and the participants were all very involved and eager to learn. It was particularly interesting for me to see because I had participated in a similar training session conducted by MSF when I used to work with refugees in Malaysia with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. That training had had a massive impact on me and was definitely a factor in the career path I had chosen for myself over the past few years. Over the next few days I was able to speak with many of the national staff as well as a few of the patients. An FSC nurse told me about the case which had stuck most in her mind and which after hearing about it, has been burned indelibly in my mind: a two-year old little girl who had been brought to the clinic by her mother after discovering an inflammation of the child’s genitals. Following consultations, it was discovered that the little girl had been raped – by her father. To make matters worse, she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. At two years old. In this case, she was treated and her father was arrested and has been imprisoned. An experienced counselor at the FSC told me that young girls and children are the most at risk of sexual violence, and those who had suffered from abuse before are most vulnerable to further harm. He told me about other cases – one of which nearly broke my heart: Two little girls of 3 and 5 who had been abused by a family member. Despite only being 5 years old, the elder girl had done all she could to protect her baby sister – even trying to divert the abuse towards herself instead. The overwhelming guilt that she felt in not being able to protect her sister – and we are talking about a 5 year old child here – is tragic, and I cannot talk about this case anymore… I just don’t have the words. It is not only victims of sexual abuse that come to the clinic. On my last morning in Lae, I arrived with the rest of the team at 7.30am at the clinic to see a young woman waiting there, her head bleeding profusely from a laceration. During my stay I was also able to speak to young mother who had come for medical treatment after having been beaten by her husband. It was not the first time she had sought assistance. She told me that the beatings were frequent, and that her husband had prevented her from seeking help from neighbors. On one occasion, she had gone to see the police after a particularly bad incident – only to be told that it was a holiday and that she should come back after the festive season. I could not decide who to be angrier with – her spouse, or the police who turned her away instead of protecting her. Eventually she was advised by a friend to come to the MSF clinic. Her friend had also needed the FSC’s services before - as mentioned previously, violence is pervasive throughout PNG. The patient I spoke to had brought her small daughter with her to the clinic, and during the course of our interview had slapped the child and waved her fist in the child’s face to castigate her daughter for fidgeting and knocking her bag over. To say that I felt uncomfortable would be an understatement. The FSC in Lae is pretty well known, and many cases are referred by the hospital, by police, other NGOs, and many by former patients. In addition, there is an MSF outreach team that visits schools, market places and public events to raise awareness about MSF’s free, confidential services. I was able to join two Outreach officers during one of their rounds at a local market. They spoke at each location for about 10-15 minutes, and a large crowd gathered around to listen. I am really glad I got to visit Lae and shadow so many people as they went around their work. Even though I only got to spend a few days with them, I will miss the team at Lae. The friendliness with which they welcomed me, their patience with my multitude of questions, their hospitality…. cannot be adequately conveyed in a couple of sentences. I will always be grateful to them for making my visit to Lae so memorable and remember them as an example of how to remain cheerful, compassionate and steady in work despite being faced with the effects of violence and the nastier side of human nature every day. Oh, and one more thing – during my stay I had the opportunity one morning to present to the team our activities in the MSF Hong Kong. I explained our roles in communications, fundraising (MSF HK had sent funds to support the project in Lae for 2 years), field human resources (ie the recruitment of field workers around the region to work in MSF projects), program development and emergency response. When I shadowed the outreach team to the markets, I was introduced as a fundraiser from Hong Kong. I was overwhelmed – as well as embarrassed and humbled – by the sudden applause of the crowd and the number of people who came up to thank MSF’s supporters in HK for donating towards the Lae project. Likewise, when I made my farewells to the team at the FSC, many charged me with messages to a) encourage my team to continue our work, and b) our donors to thank them for their support. I truly hope that our donors do see this blog because I have now witnessed firsthand the effects of their donations and the impact of MSF’s work. From myself, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.