07/07/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Beyond Beliefs: The International Fight to Protect Childhood

To protect our children, we need to have uncomfortable conversations.

"The Bible says a girl is a woman once she can bear children. If it bleeds it breeds...if it's age 11, then so be it."

"Age 12...because 12 is noon and after noon, anything is ripe for the eating."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. As I looked down at my shoelaces, I was transported back to a time when I was a wide-eyed, 11 year old little girl with a terrible secret...I took a deep breath, raised my head, squared my shoulders and continued to listen to the horrifying beliefs shared by men in Barbados about the age childhood ends for girls.

Later that afternoon, I visited a Bajan school and met 10, 11 and 12 year old girls who are, contrary to the opinions above, still children. The girls -- and their male peers -- are just kids, eager to laugh and play, to show me their Hannah Montana binders and run eagerly through the courtyard to introduce me to their beloved class pets (bunny rabbits named Miranda and Rusty). These are children who deserve love, attention, protection and care, as all children do.


But here on the island of Barbados, children's needs are all too often overshadowed by the desires of men -- and women. The resulting pain, shame and sadness are shrouded in secrecy and acceptance by way of denial.

"We don't talk about those things."

Therein lies the problem.

For the past week and a half, I've been traveling the rural island of Barbados teaching primary and secondary school students vital lessons on how to stay safe. This is important all around the world, but especially here, now, when the World Health Organization reports that HIV and AIDS has exploded among Caribbean children as a result of sexual abuse.

With younger children, my lessons are simple, yet vital: the difference between safe and unsafe secrets, situations and touches, identifying trusted adults that you can go to for help with anything. I impart basic, non-threatening, life-saving knowledge to spare other children from having to endure the horrors of my (ever-present) nightmares.

I allow the older students to see my dark places, my scars. I share my story to show these kids they can survive, and thrive, above and beyond their current circumstances...that they can create something really powerful from a seemingly hopeless situations. Then I turn the conversation to leadership and social (in)justice, inviting the children to discuss hardships in their lives, schools and communities and how they'd like to change things for the better.

These conversations have been difficult.

Since coming to Barbados, children and teens have disclosed abuse, both physical and sexual, and showed me scars on their wrists -- self-inflicted injuries as a result of their abuse.

"I told my sister about what our father was doing to me at night...she said it happened to her too, and that it happened to our mom when she was little. It's just what happens here. We just try to just get through it."

"I was raped by my lessons teacher's husband two years ago. I went over for lessons and he dragged me into their bedroom..."

They've told me about the need to carry makeshift weapons -- a hammer, a sharp umbrella, a metal math compass -- for protection on their way home from school.

These children are afraid of what might happen to them when they walk by the abandoned house on their way home, because they know a girl was pulled in and raped just one month ago.

"I am scared every day. But there is no one to help me: my mom works, I can't afford the zedar,* the police aren't there...we walk in groups when we can, but so do the drug dealers and gang members."

But, even in the face of extreme darkness, there is hope. There is light.

"I want to be a counselor when I grow up to help kids like me."

"Thank you for sharing your story, it has given me the courage to share mine. This is very bold of me, I usually keep things inside. "

The school counselors listened in on these sessions with students, and I had the opportunity to lead a workshop with the counselors themselves. It was quite the experience.

Overworked, underpaid (as it seems everyone on the island is), but passionate about their students, there was a lot of frustration in the room.

"When a child discloses a dangerous situation to me -- sexual abuse, physical abuse, a crime they have witnessed or a way they feel unsafe -- I do what we are supposed to do: call the childcare board, make a report. This has happened for me six times in the past two years. Let me tell you, two years later, I have yet to receive follow-up and these children have yet to receive formal help."

These counselors are not living in denial. They are not afraid of the conversation -- they're living it...from children's tearful disclosures of sexual abuse, physical violence, drugs and gangs to HIV status, pregnancy pacts, "daddy-daddys" and "uncle-daddys" (all things that came up in my sessions with secondary school students). They're trying to protect the children entrusted to them, but they can't do it alone.

During my workshop with the counselors, I wanted to -- in a small way -- inject some hope, some inspiration.

They asked how to make change, and I responded: "Begin the conversation. Light the takes time, but if you are persistent, you will ignite a flame."

I showed them how I lit the spark, how I started the conversation in Florida -- and how I keep it going every year -- with my annual 1,500-mile "Walk in My Shoes" walk across the state.

After a lot of soul searching with the counselors, I left our seminar that day a bit disheartened. I came to the island wanting to see a change, to be a part of it...but what true and lasting impact have I had? I felt like I was leaving before my work was done.

Then this morning, I got a call from an officer from the Barbados Ministry of Education...the counselors stayed four hours after our meeting (!!!) talking about the issues we raised together. They have decided to plan their own "Walk in My Shoes" in Barbados to get government officials and community members to pay attention to child welfare on the island.

YES! Small step, big win.

While I came to Barbados to teach local children and educators, they ended up teaching me...reminding me of something I didn't even realize I forgot: a conversation, a passion, can light a spark. If you keep sparking, you will have a flame. Fan that flame and it will grow into a blaze. You will shine light in dark places.

My time on the island of Barbados has been about safety, something every child deserves. That's the conversation I started, that's the spark I lit, the flame we'll fan.

What will yours be?

Empowerment for women and girls... environmental activism... homelessness... autism research... mental health awareness... what makes you light up?

Slowly but surely...light a spark.

*taxi bus