The Secret Camps

by Åsa Sjöström


FOR THE past three years an annual, secret summer camp has been held for women and children in Sweden who are the survivors of domestic and honor violence. The camp, which is organized by the Women’s Rights Organization in Malmö, is meant to bring some sort of normalcy to the difficult lives of its attendees. Children play and swim in the lake, some for the first time, and mothers and children have the opportunity to socialize together without fear of reprisal from their abusive husbands or fathers.

Some children swim in a lake for the first time. They can play and laugh, without being scared.

While the camp lasts only three days, the impression it leaves on attendees is significant. Although residents are safe at the traditional women’s shelters, the conditions can feel prison-like. Your life is strictly controlled — you’re not allowed to receive visitors, and addresses are kept secret — while abusive fathers or relatives walk the streets freely. Children are largely forgotten at women’s shelters, falling somewhere between the adult world and the jurisdiction of authorities. At many shelters, specialists for helping children deal with the trauma of domestic violence are rare. The shelters themselves can be crowded, and relationships between mothers and children often become strained as women go through the difficult process of starting over. The secret camp offers a welcome reprieve from such stress.

Most important is the bonding that occurs between children and their mothers at the camps. For a few days the children can be carefree, laughing and dancing, and seeing their mothers do the same. It’s a positive context where everyone involved can forge new and important friendships. Often the women don’t know anything about Sweden. Many were brought here via arranged marriage and immediately imprisoned in their husband’s apartment upon arrival. Later, once they’ve begun the long and difficult process of leaving their abusive husbands, many women are faced with the prospect of never returning to their home countries. It is a very difficult decision, especially when you are all alone in a new country. These women live in fear. They are hidden from the world. My method was to allow all the women and children I photographed a concealed identity. In this way they could retain their anonymity while making their individual voices heard.

The shelters can be crowded, and the relationship between mothers and their children often becomes strained as the mothers go through the difficult process of restarting their lives.

While the camp lasts only three days, it leaves a significant impression on its attendees.

Although residents are safe at women's shelters, conditions can feel prison-like. Details of one’s life are strictly controlled: addresses are kept secret and no visitors are allowed, while the abuser walks freely.

Children are largely forgotten at most women's shelters, falling somewhere between the adult world and the jurisdiction of authorities. It’s rare for a shelter to have a specialist for helping children deal with domestic violence.

The secret camp at the lake has a diverse group of attendees, including those with backgrounds from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Turkey, Yemen, Nigeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Albania, Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tanzania, as well as Swedes. Close to 60 women and children, who had the strength to leave their abusive environments, attend the camp during each session.

I had prepared myself for the worst outbursts; that my children would weep over all their belongings and the clothes they had to leave behind because we had to flee our home with only the clothes we had on us. But when we got into our room at the shelter my 8 year old child said: “Mom, are we able to decide by ourselves how we will live from now on?” - Mother of two children  

The lakes in Sweden are situated on beautiful sites, and often well hidden in the Swedish forests.

Wild flowers grow everywhere here. The enchanting forest environment invites the children and their mothers to arrange beautiful bouquets together.

I hate that our stepfather still lives in our large townhouse and has all of our things and can go out whenever he wants, while I no longer exist. I have no friends anymore. I can never contact my old friends again.  - A 14 year old girl

This project was produced in collaboration with Women's Rights Organization.

The main objective of Women's Rights Organization, WRO, is striving for a society where both women and men have equal values, opportunities and rights. WRO tries to raise awareness among women on their rights and duties and to empower them for better integration and contribution into their society. This organization is not associated to any political or religious view.

The WRO's goal is to eliminate: violence against women and children, honor killing and violence, women oppression, forced marriage, child marriage, and female circumcision (Female Genitalia Mutilation) 

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Berkeley, CA