The Malta Independent 23 June 2024, Sunday
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‘He broke both her arms’ – Fidem founder describes ways how NGO helps abused women

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 26 May 2024, 09:30 Last update: about 27 days ago

He broke her arms, both of them, depriving her of the “tools” she needed to earn a livelihood through running her own outlet. That was the point of no return for her, and she took the children away, to start a new life.

This was one of the stories that makes it all worthwhile for Sabine Agius Cabourdin, founder of NGO Fidem, whose target has been, since its inception six years ago, to help vulnerable people get back on their feet by providing them with the necessary tools through education.

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In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Agius Cabourdin said that the name of the NGO derives from the word Fides, which means trust and hope, "and that is basically what we do". The organisation, which is registered as an NGO and is not-for-profit, is self-sustained through private beneficiaries.

She mentioned that the organisation deals with vulnerable individuals, particularly women and children who, for some reason, have not been able to further their studies. Thus, the organisation empowers them to better themselves through education.

Agius Cabourdin said that she has been involved in philanthropy throughout her life. Before Fidem was set up, she was part of several philanthropic boards, such as Smiling with Jerome and the BOV Joseph Calleja Foundation.

After doing this for 20 years, she felt "it was high time" to set up a foundation of her own to leave a legacy for her children. Hence, for her 40th birthday in 2018, instead of gifts, she asked for monetary donations for the setting up of the Fidem Foundation.

"I collected around €12,000, and that is how Fidem was born on my 40th birthday," she said.

Agius Cabourdin stated that when the Fidem journey began, it aimed to support the socially-deprived and underprivileged, not necessarily women experiencing domestic abuse. However, she noted that by default, the individuals seeking support were often referred by social workers, most of whom were cases involving women who had suffered domestic violence.

"One out of four women in Malta has experienced some form of emotional or physical abuse, and often when the woman is financially dependent on the perpetrator, it creates another barrier for them to leave," she said.

She said that in some cases, women are caught in a vicious cycle of abuse they cannot break free from because of their financial dependence on their partner. Therefore, providing these women with a support structure, where they can achieve financial independence, gives them the courage to leave such abusive relationships.

Reflecting on specific cases that have stayed with her since the beginning of Fidem, Agius Cabourdin highlighted many, but one that particularly resonated was about a woman whose partner broke both her arms.

She explained that the victim had her own outlet, which was thriving. However, being in an abusive relationship, the final straw that prompted her to leave the matrimonial home was when her husband broke her arms.

"The only tool she had (her hands) to sustain herself and be independent, he took away from her, leaving her dependent on him," she said. Following this incident, the woman, together with her children, approached the NGO seeking assistance. “She wanted to go back to school and re-train, so Fidem provided her with laptops and books. She began studying for her O-levels from scratch alongside her teenage daughter. After completing her examinations, she successfully managed to change careers.

Another distressing case involved a woman who was forced to keep the laptop Fidem donated to her hidden from her abuser as she was still living with him and she did not want to let him know she was studying. Agius Cabourdin recounted how this woman used to hide the laptop under the seat of the car, fearing that she would be beaten up otherwise.

"Most of these women come with such stories because domestic violence is all about power and control over their victims," she said.

Recalling other instances, she mentioned that initially, she used to visit shelters, but eventually had to stop due to the emotional toll it took on her. "It was becoming very emotionally taxing," she said. Now, Fidem is well-equipped with its own human resources, including around 40 volunteers who conduct meetings with service users.

Reflecting on other stories, she remembered an elderly woman who endured abuse from her husband for decades. "She used to go buy him cigarettes from a shop around the corner from their property. And because it took her six minutes instead of three to get back home, he would beat her," she said.

Unfortunately, she noted that many victims, like this elderly woman, become so brainwashed that they return to their aggressor because they don't know anything better than that life.

Agius Cabourdin emphasised that Fidem doesn't simply provide its service users with a "fish at the table" but also equips them with the fishing rod to become self-sustainable.

"So what we do is, we finance their education, whatever course they decide to pursue. In addition to this, the NGO provides holistic support, including emotional and mental support, through psychologists, psychotherapists or coaches from our team of emotional well-being professionals at Fidem, as well as legal aid."

She explained that once a service user is enrolled, the NGO collaborates with them to devise a plan based on their aspirations. Career paths range from nail technicians, hairdressers and cab drivers to university graduates, IT managers and accountants.

Agius Cabourdin noted that these students are closely monitored throughout their courses, even the most determined ones. However, she acknowledged that if a person were to give up on their education, the support provided by the NGO wouldn't cease. Some women may face or develop mental health issues that could hinder their studies.

In every case, she highlighted that Fidem conducts thorough due diligence, including examining bank accounts and social benefits, to provide financial assistance accordingly.

Currently, service users have a choice between two programmes offered by the NGO. One is Educate to empower, which has been available since the NGO's inception, while the other is a skill-up programme.

The latter course was developed after the NGO observed a trend among service users who lacked basic literacy skills, including reading, writing and computer literacy. Addressing the education system, she remarked: "In this country, we have a significant problem."

The new course, fully accredited at MQF level 3, aims to bridge this gap. Last June, the NGO enrolled 20 women in English and computer literacy courses. While the government also offers similar services, they schedule classes on Wednesday nights in Floriana at Jobsplus.

Agius Cabourdin highlighted the impracticality of this schedule, especially for women with multiple children and no transportation. Fidem addressed this issue by "removing all barriers", ensuring that the right to education is not just a theoretical concept but also accessible in practice.

Throughout the course, Fidem provides free transportation and professional childcare services at the location of the course. Every Saturday from 9am to 1pm, participants and their children, are transported to the institution. While mothers attend classes, their children are cared for by professionals until the end of the session.

Agius Cabourdin stressed that regardless of the varying outcomes, the programme is immensely beneficial. By July, Fidem plans to organise a graduation ceremony and party to celebrate the participants' achievements in the skill-up programme.

Before joining Fidem courses, most women either resided in domestic violence shelters or relied on government benefits. Through these programmes, Fidem aims to empower them with education and skills for a brighter future.

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