Lent Remixed, Week 2: Panama

February 18, 2013

Panama is a beautiful country with beautiful people and a rich history. Panama City, unlike some South American cities and countries, has many modern amenities including skyscrapers and a solid banking system that uses the U.S. dollar for currency, making travel there for Americans convenient. The Panama Canal also brings in an annual revenue for the country that helps fund the country's infrastructure and offers jobs to many Panamanians.

But with all the beauty there is in Panama - in the landscape, the culture, the very people themselves - there is another side that is hidden. Left unseen. Panama, like a number of South American countries, has a high rate of child abuse. In fact, one article I found published by UNICEF stated that “Latin America and the Caribbean – with a population of more than 190 million children – has the highest rate of violence affecting women and children.” It continued: “In this region violence against children and adolescents in the family is manifested mainly through physical punishment – as a form of discipline – sexual abuse, neglect and economic exploitation.” A modest number the study gave for the percentage of children abused was 50 percent, and in 90 percent of cases children were abused by a family member, someone they knew. Since abuse happens within the family, it is often not only hidden, but perpetuates a cycle that continues from one generation to the next.

I became interested in Panama last year while preparing for a missions trip to the country. I first heard about Panama from missionaries Gerritt and Tara Kenyon, who spoke at a Women’s Conference, explaining the things they had seen, heard, and experienced the past few years in Panama. The Kenyons are missionaries to Panama, specifically reaching out to the youth there. They told us how one of the main ways that they reach teenagers is by going into the schools, putting on assemblies, meeting with kids, getting to know them. A common theme they began to hear from girls after these assemblies was the abuse, specifically sexual abuse, they were experiencing at the hands of their fathers, brothers, uncles, or other family members. And these girls' stories are seen in the statistics from the same article I quoted earlier: “Girls have a much greater risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse by family members or strangers. Studies in the region show that for every boy that is sexually abused, three or four girls are victims of the same crime.” Over and over again they would hear these stories from girls, until finally, they could stand it no longer. They decided something needed to be done. As they talked with other friends who had been in Panama longer than they had and asked them specifically about this issue, they would hear, “Oh yeah, we know it’s happening. It’s Panama’s dirty little secret that no one talks about. We just don’t know what to do about it.”

And this is the reason that I and about 160 other people from Minnesota and around the United States traveled to Panama last year. We put on the first girls conference in Panama, "Ilumina," and invited girls to come for free. We offered them meals, gifts, photo booths, and nail and hair stations,while also speaking truth into their lives: That they were beautiful. Wanted. Created with a purpose. Things many of them had never heard before. We prayed for them and then offered hope. You see, the mission of the Kenyons is not just to put on a girls conference or go into schools, their ultimate goal is to have a place for girls who are being abused to go to. A place a safety. A refuge. And they are in the process of making that dream a reality in the middle of Panama City.

Jenn Uitto graciously allowed me to use her photos from the missions trip last year. She and her husband Neil are now planning to move to Panama full time to help the Kenyons in reaching girls and opening El Refuge. You can read more about their story here.

What can we do this week? How will we help?

Prayer. First, we will start by praying. We will pray for the girls and for protection against further abuse. We will pray for the men who perpetuate that kind of behavior, that they would experience conviction and a realization that further abuse must end. We will pray for the Kenyons, the Uittos and El Refuge. Finally, we will pray for the girls conference, Ilumina, being put on again this year - that girls will come and that lives will be touched and changed. We will also pray for more light to be shed on this issue in Panama, for laws to be created to protect girls and children and for honesty and a passion for justice in those who would carry out those laws.

Fasting. This week we will give up between 15 and 30 minutes, everyday, of social media time (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) and instead spend that time praying for Panama, the children, the missionaries, and lawmakers.

Giving. We will partner with the Kenyons and Uittios by supporting El Refuge so that it becomes a reality. Kyle and I also plan on being a part of the missions trip again this year to Panama and helping with the girls conference. If you would like more information about the trip this summer, you'll find it here.

We would love for you to join us in praying for Panama this week and in giving up 15 to 30 minutes of social media time everyday to instead pray for Panama.

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