Mary-Justine Todd

After nearly three years of thoughtfully and tirelessly working through regional, cultural and political challenges, Pollination Project grantee Mary-Justine Todd has just opened a full scale crisis center for victims of domestic and sexual abuse in the Middle East.

Trained to recognize signs of abuse by Todd’s organization, Women’s Crisis Care International, hospital staff in Manama, Bahrain are able to alert a team of around-the-clock volunteer counselors. Within minutes, a WCCI counselor arrives and offers, Todd said, “emotional support for the victim, as well as logistic support and information for the future, we connect her with long term counselors, attorneys, get her locks changed, housing assistance. Whatever it is she needs.”

WCCI is just the latest effort in Todd’s desire to provide whatever is needed for people pushed to the edges of survival. She has worked both in the emergency room and the board room on behalf of victims of domestic and sexual abuse in the U.S., as both a certified rape crisis counselor and the president of the board of at Columbia University Hospital’s crisis counseling program in Manhattan. She also spent three years supporting the health and well-being of perhaps the most vulnerable of all populations, women and children displaced by war and violence, at refugee camps in Liberia, Tanzania and Ghana.

From this experience, Todd has learned not to impose an externally driven model on a community. Whether it is in informational meetings with major political and financial players in Bahrain, or in private training sessions with medical staff and volunteers, Todd creates a safe environment where Bahrainis feel supported in their religious and cultural beliefs, where attention and healing, not difference and shame, are the focus. The environment that Todd creates is so protected and secure that women training to help other women soon opened up about abuse they have suffered, speaking words about traumatic, life altering events they have never breathed to another human being.

Creating these safe spaces began with a revelation. As a young theater major, Todd took a French class that introduced her to the plight of those living in French speaking African countries. Walking with friends around Dakar, Senegal, she came upon a woman with no legs “scooting around on the ground on her hands, without any wheelchair or prosthetic device.” The shock, fear and pain she felt for this woman that she had nearly stepped on, that most people merely step over, changed her forever.

“This was the moment I knew I would not be able to turn my back on people who were less fortunate than I.” For Todd the experience was “equally exhilarating and heartbreaking.” She returned to her Midwestern college, and promptly changed her major from theater to African studies. “From there my life has taken on a life of its own.”

A life of its own. One thing led to another. Todd has a curious manner of rendering these developments. As if, of course, a French class would lead to two Masters degrees in International Studies and Public Health and spending three years easing suffering in refugee camps, which then obviously evolves into opening the first full scale rape crisis center in the Middle East. Asking her why or how seems to be akin to asking a tree why it grows, or why the sky is blue. You are suddenly a pesky three year old curious about unalterable facts. She mentions a strongly ethical mother, self-consciously recalls a report on Martin Luther King she wrote in elementary school. And that’s about it. The abiding task is the business of getting on with it. Trees grow with water and light. Unless it’s cloudy, the sky is blue. Moving on.

“Some days I think I am super-awesome, and I think we are changing the world and other days I wonder: ‘What in the heck am I doing? How have I convinced myself that this is a good idea? It’s never going to work.’ It really goes up and down and it was just so validating, so exciting to know that the Pollination Project thought that what we were doing was legitimate.”



 

“I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to return home and forget about these women. I knew that they had entered my life for a reason. I knew that having been blessed with wealth, safety, security and education, it was my job to spread the goodness that had been sent my way.”

 


This up and down makes sense when you consider the grim, staggering global statistics on domestic and sexual abuse. The World Health Organization reports that 35% of women worldwide, more than a billion women, have experienced either intimate partner or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Todd wades into this overwhelming tide without becoming numbed or discouraged into inaction by the seeming insignificance of a single person’s efforts in a world awash in domestic abuse and sexual violence.

In an interview with Chris Martensen on Peak Prosperity, Julia Butterfly Hill, the environmental activist, describes her advocacy this way: “I call it the choiceless choice. We could choose to not say anything. We could choose to walk away. But to do that would kill off a piece of ourselves. So even though we could say no, we say yes. And there is something about having something deeply meaningful to say yes to, to give our lives to.”

Though Todd is not nearly this self-reflectively poetic—she laughingly chides herself for terming the disturbing problems she sees as “un-ignorable” —she does say yes. Yes to the fact that though she is in the Middle East, she is in Bahrain where they have enacted “strong and progressive” laws protecting women, where she has found “so much support in the government and private institutions.” Yes to the fact that though she is working on one of the most stubbornly persistent and prevalent challenges facing civilized society, she will simply care for the each victim of domestic and sexual abuse that she can.

Todd tells of a woman who was brought to Bahrain “under the pretense of being a tailor, but after her arrival she was forced into prostitution. She was made to sleep with more than 80 men in 40 days, at one point being raped by 11 men in one night.” This woman escaped and is now being treated by WCCI counselors. As with the Senegalese woman without legs, wheelchair or prosthesis, Todd will not step on or over this vulnerable, wounded woman. She concentrates and coordinates resources. She creates safe spaces. She heals.

Todd also speaks much more about what binds us, how we are alike. Though deeply moved by both the staggering poverty and the unimaginable distress of the refugee women she met in camps, “What struck me was once I got to know some of these women, I realized they were exactly like me! They were not talking about the abuse they suffered in the war, but rather they were laughing, cooking lunch with the small food that they had, and gossiping about their neighbors and complaining about their husbands, exactly the way I would have been.”

Whether aiding refugees, working with the influential elite in Bahrain, or tending to victims of domestic and sexual abuse, Todd sees our commonality and begins there. Whether you want to call it a called a choiceless choice or a logical response to a revelation, Todd has taken on a life of her own, so that others can more fully lead a life of their own.

“I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to return home and forget about these women. I knew that they had entered my life for a reason. I knew that having been blessed with wealth, safety, security and education, it was my job to spread the goodness that had been sent my way.”

Learn more about WCCI by visiting their Website, FacebookTwitter, or reading more about their grant from The Pollination Project.