Places and Spaces

Places and Spaces in the Lives of Marginalized Children

An Investigation of NGOs’ Work with Finding and Creating Safety for Children Exposed to Torture and Other Forms of Violence in the Philippines

“What will your thesis project be about?” one of my fellow students asks me one late afternoon in a crowded S-train hurtling its way through rainy Copenhagen. It’s autumn 2021, and I am doing an internship at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture. I look out the window as the cityscape passes by. People and places appear and disappear again just as quickly as if they existed only for a brief moment. I’m drawn to this image of places that occur, disappear, and thus transform in the passing by. It reminds me of a university project I wrote on the concept of scale and how local places have become global in the issue of online child sexual abuse and exploitation in the Philippines. It makes me think of Stairway, their work in the fight against child sexual abuse and exploitation, and the children they work with. I feel a pang of longing, and I look at my friend: “It will be about places and spaces in the lives of marginalized children in the Philippines.” I answer as thoughts and ideas fill my head. Months later, I find myself in my university library, deeply buried in my fieldwork and thesis project. My fieldwork was conducted in the spring of 2022 as online interviews with three NGOs and children’s rights organizations from the Philippines, including Stairway Foundation.

Places and Spaces in the Lives of Marginalized Children

For me, ‘place’ and ‘space’ are interesting concepts, as they are common words used in our everyday life without really putting much thought into our understanding of them. According to key thinkers across disciplines, ‘place’ and ‘space’ are a part of life and embedded in the way we are, comprehend, and practice the world. This aspect is interesting in my investigation of places and spaces in the lives of marginalized children, as they are found in a variety of places and thus are in the world in certain ways. Especially children living in poor areas or in the streets are constantly in contiguity with different places and people at different times. These children are often on the move, and their pathways thus consist of encounters with many different places. In this way, the children are found in and between places. Particularly, the ‘in between’ places are interesting to examine because they have a dynamic dimension in the way they follow and develop along with the constant motion of the children. Hence, ‘place’ and ‘space’ become key in understanding the lives of marginalized children as well as how NGOs approach the children. The aim of my thesis project was thus to investigate ‘places’ and ‘spaces’ in the lives of marginalized children in the Philippines in order to analyze and discuss how different NGOs understand, experience, and utilize these concepts in their work with children being subjected to torture and other forms of violence.

Stairway as a Place Creating Spaces

Stairway is geographically located on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, which is a several hours journey from Manila. Through my interviews, Stairway is described by my informants as a very silent place compared to Manila. In many ways, Stairway is far from Manila, both geographically and mindset-wise. Stairway is thus a complete contrast to Manila, which, as it turns out, is a deliberate choice. In one of the interviews, the co-founder and creative director of Stairway, Ate Monica, emphasizes the importance of this:

“It’s important that what we do – what Stairway does – needs to be away from the concrete jungle and the harshness of the city, and we need to slow down, you know, be still and reflect. Just get in sync and in tune with nature, and in doing that we get in touch with ourselves. So, Stairway is different from other places, this idea of space – this vastness – so growing, breathing, expanding, exploring, and imagining –all of those are things that can happen when your space, I think, has been broadened and has been widened.”

(SFI A 2022, 4).

In this quote, the importance of nature as a part of Stairway is emphasized. Nature is almost made into an adjective that describes Stairway as well as a vital function of the place and the work with the children. At the same time, there is this shift from place to space. Stairway thus goes from being this concrete place to being a space that involves much more.

Spaces Allowing Children to be Children

Stairway works inside the place of Stairway and thus creates a setting for their work with the children. However, Stairway’s work goes beyond this place. Stairway uses theater, as a way to both approach the children and work with them. An important place in Stairway that I want to highlight, as it is described as a safe space, is the stage. The stage is mentioned as something quite special by all five informants and employees of Stairway:

“[…] a place at Stairway that is very important to the children is the stage because it’s the heart of Stairway where people or children can be able to share their stories confidently without being ashamed because they feel that it’s a very safe place that they can trust and a place that listens to them. It’s a place that will not judge them for who they are but accept them for the experience that they have.

For me the stage is also a safe place in Stairway.” (SFI F 2022, 2).

This quote is interesting on more levels. In this, she describes the stage as a safe place that the children can trust because it is a place that listens to them. In this way, the stage becomes almost humanized with the ability to listen. This is interesting, as it gives another layer to place as a concept. She describes the stage as a place, but one that has the ability to accommodate the children. As I asked her to elaborate on this, she changed her choice of word:

“It’s the space at Stairway that I first discovered my talent, but it’s also the space it kind of like helped me to realize that I have been abused and it’s okay to accept it and share it with people. That it’s why I love being on the stage, and just being there gives me a feeling of being safe all the time or being trusted and being confident with who I am and accepting myself.” (SFI F 2022, 2).

It is interesting how she starts calling the stage a place at Stairway, but when elaborating why this particular place is important to her, she changes it and calls it space instead. The stage is an interesting place because it appears to be more than just a place. Another informant has similar experience of the stage:

“It’s magic. It’s therapy without knowing. The stage is a comfort to me [silence] it was where I felt a trust. I can do whatever I want and express myself – you can sing, laugh and shout. You can express yourself freely. That’s the thing that kids need to do – something inside them need to be burst. Theater is a good way of letting those feelings out.” (SFI H 2022, 3).

There is much to take from this quote, as it holds many elements in describing the stage as a place and how this specific place is transformed into a space. Focus on this transformation is the ability to express oneself freely as a child in a place of trust. This goes in line with how the stage is described as a place of free expression. In addition, there is something interesting in the figurative way in which he describes that there is something inside the children that need to be burst and let out. The stage becomes an outlet for the children and a way for them to be in the world. Yet, based on both informants’ descriptions of the stage, it is both a place as well as a space. By seeing the stage as a dynamic place that through activities and emotional expressions, has the ability to become something else and drawing on a theoretical lens the stage becomes space. Stairway work in particular places but through their work with the children it is shown that they manage to go beyond these places. Activities such as theater, art, games, dance, and education are ways in which Stairway uses place and space in their work with the children. Through these activities, they aim at creating trust and in that way, it also becomes a way in which Stairway as an NGO orients itself towards creating safe spaces for the children. The activities thus become an important tool for the NGOs, when they work with the children, but to the children, it becomes a safe space creating a wordless language.

Conclusion of the study

The thesis shows that NGOs work in concrete places, which in their work with the children, are transformed into spaces. In this way, these places become dynamic, as they are changeable. This dynamic approach is proven to be relevant in more ways than just understanding the activities of the NGOs. The concepts of place and space emerge namely in several ways when examining the collected material. Places of the children are characterized by a dynamic dimension, as the children encounter places in constant motion.

The thesis concludes that a dynamic understanding of the concepts ‘place’ and ‘space’ opens up an understanding of how the NGOs work with marginalized children being subjected to torture and other forms of violence. The thesis thus concludes that places provide a setting for spaces to be explored. Places and spaces in the lives of marginalized children become an important part of the NGOs’ work in creating safe spaces for children. This is made possible by the spatial perspective, where a dynamic approach allows an exchange between place and space. Space is thus not separated from place, as the way in which the NGOs utilize places in their work creates spaces. Drawing on the theoretical framework and collected material, it is concluded how a dynamic understanding of place and space can provide an insight into the NGOs’ work with marginalized children in the Philippines being subjected to torture and other forms of violence.

Contributed by Sarah Staub, Stairway volunteer

Sarah Staub – 201707197
Master Thesis Project