Hope on the Other Side, with Nikole Lim

Nikole Lim

Nikole Lim (MAGL ’20) is the founder of Freely in Hope, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring dignity of survivors of sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia, which they do through holistic education and platforms for each survivor’s dreams to be realized. Nikole is also the author of Liberation Is Here: Women Uncovering Hope in a Broken World (IVP, 2020), where she recounts her experience working as a documentary filmmaker capturing the stories of survivors of sexual violence before realizing her deeper calling to walk alongside them in partnership and advocacy. Learn more about Nikole’s work at freelyinhope.org.

Joy Netanya Thompson: Your organization’s mission statement is to “equip survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia.” Let’s start by defining our terms for those unfamiliar. How would you describe the cycle of sexual violence?

Nikole Lim: The cycle of sexual violence is perpetuated by many factors, including patriarchy, oppressive cultural beliefs, miseducation, and religiosity (that also embodies a lot of the patriarchal system). That system, which deems women or other marginalized groups as less than, leads the oppressor to overpower, violate, or coerce people at the margins. For us to end the cycle means not only ensuring that a survivor has loving support, access to education, resources to move forward in life, and safety away from the perpetrator. It also means changing the way this generation and the next generations after us perceive women and the “other.” We want to change our cultures to embody more equitable ways of working and living together so that no person is dehumanized and sexually violated.

JNT: It sounds like stopping the cycle is really about addressing the root issues, rather than only responding once the violence has happened.

NL: Many factors inform this cycle. We also have to look at prevention. We work with girls who live in rural villages and are more vulnerable to sexual violence because there is a lack of access to education and there are many cultural practices that still oppress women and girls. We also work in urban informal settlements where people are living so close together that sexual violence is rampant because of close proximity to vulnerable people—especally children who are at home due to lack of school fees. Providing access to safe and quality education supports our prevention arm, which is one way of stopping the cycle. The second arm is aftercare: When we receive cases of survivors, we then ensure that they have a safe community in which to live and in which to be educated. Aftercare services also include everything they need to go to school at full health, wellness, and safety. This doesn’t just include school fees­­ but also resources for mental health, physical health, safe housing, and a community of belonging. And finally, the systemic piece of stopping the cycle is where the survivors of sexual violence are the ones creating this new culture—bringing forth what they want to see in the world. They’re the ones leading by teaching at schools, churches, and community organizations to talk about ways to shift oppressive mindsets and leverage the dignity in all people.

JNT: Your organization’s goal is to end sexual violence. What would that look like, if there were a day when you could say, “We did it. We ended sexual violence”?

NL: Realistically we know that in this world where patriarchy is pervasive, it’s very difficult. When we say that we work to end sexual violence, it might mean that for one person or two people, the debilitating trauma as a result of sexual violence and the acceptance of violent oppression ends in their lives. We provide survivors with holistic support that gives them the tools to lead in ending sexual violence—the impact they have in their communities is expansive. Survivors provided with holistic support in our community reach over 4,000 people per year! We start by holistically supporting each survivor, and from their leadership, their solutions will change the way that culture views the so-called “other.” So with this larger goal in mind of eventually ending sexual violence within many years and many generations of educated and equipped people, I believe that the solution comes from people who have experienced sexual violence. They have the best solutions for moving us forward toward not just equitable leadership opportunities but also equitable resourcing where people from lower resourced communities have access to the same resources that I do—or the same resources that the White male might have—to then influence change in their spheres.

JNT: Freely in Hope is very clear that it is a survivor-led organization. What does that mean, and does it contrast with an older model of advocacy?

avatar silhouette

Nikole Lim (MAGL ’20) is the founder of Freely in Hope and the author of Liberation Is Here: Women Uncovering Hope in a Broken World.

Joy Thompson

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is Fuller’s editorial director and senior writer.

Nikole Lim (MAGL ’20) is the founder of Freely in Hope, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring dignity of survivors of sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia, which they do through holistic education and platforms for each survivor’s dreams to be realized. Nikole is also the author of Liberation Is Here: Women Uncovering Hope in a Broken World (IVP, 2020), where she recounts her experience working as a documentary filmmaker capturing the stories of survivors of sexual violence before realizing her deeper calling to walk alongside them in partnership and advocacy. Learn more about Nikole’s work at freelyinhope.org.

Joy Netanya Thompson: Your organization’s mission statement is to “equip survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia.” Let’s start by defining our terms for those unfamiliar. How would you describe the cycle of sexual violence?

Nikole Lim: The cycle of sexual violence is perpetuated by many factors, including patriarchy, oppressive cultural beliefs, miseducation, and religiosity (that also embodies a lot of the patriarchal system). That system, which deems women or other marginalized groups as less than, leads the oppressor to overpower, violate, or coerce people at the margins. For us to end the cycle means not only ensuring that a survivor has loving support, access to education, resources to move forward in life, and safety away from the perpetrator. It also means changing the way this generation and the next generations after us perceive women and the “other.” We want to change our cultures to embody more equitable ways of working and living together so that no person is dehumanized and sexually violated.

JNT: It sounds like stopping the cycle is really about addressing the root issues, rather than only responding once the violence has happened.

NL: Many factors inform this cycle. We also have to look at prevention. We work with girls who live in rural villages and are more vulnerable to sexual violence because there is a lack of access to education and there are many cultural practices that still oppress women and girls. We also work in urban informal settlements where people are living so close together that sexual violence is rampant because of close proximity to vulnerable people—especally children who are at home due to lack of school fees. Providing access to safe and quality education supports our prevention arm, which is one way of stopping the cycle. The second arm is aftercare: When we receive cases of survivors, we then ensure that they have a safe community in which to live and in which to be educated. Aftercare services also include everything they need to go to school at full health, wellness, and safety. This doesn’t just include school fees­­ but also resources for mental health, physical health, safe housing, and a community of belonging. And finally, the systemic piece of stopping the cycle is where the survivors of sexual violence are the ones creating this new culture—bringing forth what they want to see in the world. They’re the ones leading by teaching at schools, churches, and community organizations to talk about ways to shift oppressive mindsets and leverage the dignity in all people.

JNT: Your organization’s goal is to end sexual violence. What would that look like, if there were a day when you could say, “We did it. We ended sexual violence”?

NL: Realistically we know that in this world where patriarchy is pervasive, it’s very difficult. When we say that we work to end sexual violence, it might mean that for one person or two people, the debilitating trauma as a result of sexual violence and the acceptance of violent oppression ends in their lives. We provide survivors with holistic support that gives them the tools to lead in ending sexual violence—the impact they have in their communities is expansive. Survivors provided with holistic support in our community reach over 4,000 people per year! We start by holistically supporting each survivor, and from their leadership, their solutions will change the way that culture views the so-called “other.” So with this larger goal in mind of eventually ending sexual violence within many years and many generations of educated and equipped people, I believe that the solution comes from people who have experienced sexual violence. They have the best solutions for moving us forward toward not just equitable leadership opportunities but also equitable resourcing where people from lower resourced communities have access to the same resources that I do—or the same resources that the White male might have—to then influence change in their spheres.

JNT: Freely in Hope is very clear that it is a survivor-led organization. What does that mean, and does it contrast with an older model of advocacy?

Written By

Nikole Lim (MAGL ’20) is the founder of Freely in Hope and the author of Liberation Is Here: Women Uncovering Hope in a Broken World.

Joy Netanya Thompson (MAT ’12) is Fuller’s editorial director and senior writer.

NL: The old model—which still exists, especially in faith-based communities—is the more colonizing approach where we as the Western minds, because we’re educated and we have wealth and affluence, know what’s best. In fact, we’re spending $5,000–20,000 per mission trip to come over and tell you how to live your life. But that mindset perpetuates violence in a way that it deems women—and those who live in places that we have no context about—as less valuable and less worthy to be solution-providers for their own contexts. To be survivor-led means to equip and allow survivors to influence change in our organization and then influence change in their families, in their cultural systems, in their schools and their churches, and in all the spaces they occupy.

JNT: You mentioned earlier how survivors have solutions or ideas that someone who wasn’t in their situation or context couldn’t even have thought of. Could you give an example?

NL: One of our survivors, Lydia, was sexually assaulted as a child. She is now an alumna of our program; she graduated from university with us and started doing work with us to end sexual violence within high schools. She is from Kibera, which is East Africa’s largest slum. She knew the school system and the culture of Kibera like the back of her hand, so she designed a curriculum specifically for coed schools to foster shared learning on respect, consent, and sexual violence prevention. The schools don’t talk about issues of consent and sexual violence, especially in coed schools. Lydia designed this curriculum with that approach in mind because she’s been through the school system. She knew the best way to create messaging that fits the culture and resonates with that demographic. Our pre-assessment of these students showed that 50 percent believed that it was a man’s right to have sex with women. After our 10 sessions of training, this went down to 35 percent. By equipping high school leaders in leadership, we want to see that percentage continually drop through peer education and focus groups. Through this program, we’ve impacted over 1,000 students, and our hope is that this generation of high school students will bring forward safety, consent, and mutual respect in their relationships.

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JNT: Lydia seems like a great example of the Freely in Hope’s three-pronged model of holistic education, leadership development, and storytelling platforms. I can see through her story how those feed into each other.

NL: Lydia’s example is the ideal flow and trajectory of our programs. And we have many “Lydias” who have gone through the whole model and are now working with us or working with other organizations that end sexual violence. It starts with holistic education. We believe education is the first entry way into success in later life, in terms of survivors pursuing the career of their choice outside of the normal: forced prostitution, being a house girl, or being a day laborer. When I was working in the field as a documentary filmmaker, the survivors I met all said they wanted to go to school. For girls, access to education is a lot more limited. In high school, tuition fees are introduced, so many families can’t afford to send their children to high school. Many parents have between five and ten children, so if they send some children to high school, they will prioritize the boys over the girls, and the girls are married off for dowry. Education was the first step toward their dreams. And then we realized other issues: How do they get to school? How are we ensuring they’re eating proper meals, especially if they came from a background of starvation? How do we ensure that the places they’re living are not in close proximity to the abuser? How do we ensure they are also healing holistically with access to  mental health, physical health, emotional-spiritual health? How do we support their movement toward self-sustainability? Our holistic education program provides all of the components necessary to thrive in an academic environment.

But what we found also is that as these women are growing in their sense of leadership, they’re also realizing that they have a greater purpose in the world, which is to be leaders and influencers in their spheres of interest. While our scholars are studying in university, we have a leadership development program where they commit to community service, and they also participate in leadership labs where we provide training on skills like program design, trauma healing, financial literacy, and public speaking. They practice their leadership skills through outreach programs—our storytelling platforms—that work with children, high school students, women in prostitution, and survivors of sexual violence and trafficking. They can also pitch to design their own community-based program. We support our scholars as they develop their program model, ensuring there is a strong objective, as well as outcomes and assessments. And then we fund it. We reach around 4,000 people per year through our storytelling platforms throughout two countries.

JNT: Calling outreach programs “storytelling platforms” seems really intentional. I’m wondering what you think about the power of storytelling when it comes to survivors’ healing and coming into their own power and helping others.

NL: Since all of our storytelling platforms are completely designed, initiated, and led by survivors, it leverages the wisdom and solutions of survivors that can change communities. Survivors have the most powerful solutions for their communities, which makes them experts in their field. Those who hear their stories might feel safer to come forward because it’s coming from someone they could fully identify with. The power in the survivor’s voice narrates their own healing journey from their perspective, which can also provide healing opportunities for others who have similarly experienced the trauma of sexual violence.

JNT: Liberation and freedom seem to be themes for you and your work. Your organization is called Freely in Hope and your book has the word “liberation” in the title. Why is that concept something you really grasped onto?

NL: I believe that survivors of sexual violence have the potential to become the most powerful liberators in our world, and oftentimes they’re not given those opportunities or the resources to move toward that trajectory. But I found that in providing those opportunities for them to be in positions of leadership, their leadership is liberating. Liberation Is Here, the title of my book, means that liberation is found in the most unexpected places—that it’s here. It’s not just something in the future or something that is found by external resources. Liberation is here already in the hearts and minds and solutions of survivors. If we can all come closer to that experience, we can find liberation together.

JNT: Some people, especially if they don’t have a history of sexual violence—if they’re one of the lucky ones—might feel resistant to getting involved in this cause. It might feel like too much, too heavy. It’s not a fun cause to be a part of. What do you wish those people would know about your work and the importance of it?

NL: I appreciate that question because I am one of the lucky ones, and my “come to Jesus moment” was when, in my work as a documentary filmmaker, I heard so many horrific stories and I asked myself the question, “Why am I lucky when easily any of these stories could have been mine?” I am a granddaughter of immigrants from communist China. Had my grandparents never immigrated, I may not have been born—being a girl in China. Had my parents been unable to find work due to their race, or stayed in Chinatown or lived on the other side of the freeway, it could have been a completely different story. But in being a “lucky one,” there is a responsibility to make the world more equitable, more beautiful, more whole, more liberated. From my experiences of living and working in community with survivors of sexual violence, I am constantly guided by Lilla Watson’s quote, ​​“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation will only be found in tandem with the liberation of somebody else.

Otherwise, we are living in an egotistical fairyland, which can feel great, but it’s limiting because it’s been created to center one perspective. The reality is one in three women are survivors of sexual violence worldwide, one in four girls under the age of 18, one in six boys. Picture this: A third of your female friendships, a third of your congregation members, and a third of your family members have experienced sexual violence. In the egotistical fairyland, we can deny the truth of these statistics and live our life unaware of the violence oppressing our loved ones. But ignorance only limits our understanding of experiences outside of our own. To be a better leader, a better pastor, a better activist, a better sister, a better friend, a better auntie, a better husband, a better uncle, we must recognize that abuse is rampant and it requires all of our education and our participation to create safe spaces for survivors to heal and to use our influence to end sexual violence. Our responsibility is to connect to reality and to bring forward new possibilities that nurture survivors and amplify solutions from unexpected places. But until we see it, we are only perpetuating violence. If we imagine the possibility of newness led by the wisdom of survivors of sexual violence and others who have experienced immense trauma, that’s when we can work together to end oppressive systems and bring about liberation.

JNT: In the face of such a deeply rooted cycle, an issue so tragically rampant, what sustains you in this work? The other part of your organization’s title is “hope.” I recently heard Bryan Stevenson say in an interview that hope is a superpower. What are your thoughts on that?

NL: Holding onto hope, when overwhelmed by the trauma of violence, feels impossible at times. Three years into this work, I was hospitalized in Zambia from secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. The crux of my book discusses my healing journey as I gained hope from the healing wisdom and support from survivors in my community. The only way to continue the work sustainably is to feel the grief of it. And when you’re able to feel the grief of it, you find that there is hope on the other side. You’ll only know what hope is after the experience of grief, just like you can experience the fullness of joy after an experience of pain. You’ll be able to recognize what’s beautiful after you’ve seen what’s considered broken, and love is refined through experiences of suffering. These juxtapositions coexist together. Hope is found in recognizing and feeling the pain and the grief of the world, then using that grief as fuel to move forward. The hope is that our stories are not singular—there are multitudes of survivors and advocates joining in on this cause of ending sexual violence and ushering in a better world. And, for me, to see how survivors have been able to turn their suffering into love, or turn their grief into hope, or turn their pain into joy—they are my source of hope that keeps me going in this advocacy work. Their perspective helps me see how beautiful the world actually is.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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