White flowersZahrah Hajali knows how something as simple as creating a safe space to talk can help women escape violence and rebuild their lives.

As an outreach and support worker for the Young Women at Risk program in Ottawa, Zahrah works with young women between the ages of 14 and 24 who have survived violence, including sexual exploitation.

Zahrah reminds her clients that the abuse they’ve endured doesn’t define them. And as a mother who has experienced violence and poverty, she knows what she’s talking about.

“What you’re going through today is not who you are,” Zahrah says.

“Time after time, I see women who may be in very difficult situations at home who feel like they don't have any self-esteem. They’re told they don’t have the capacity to do anything, or told they’re not good mothers. Their partners are basically abusive in every way possible.”

Most women come to the program from cycles of abuse and poverty, putting them at greater risk of becoming young parents in abusive relationships. As marginalized members of their community, they may have experienced domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness and street violence.

Through the Young Women at Risk program, the women discuss and heal from personal experiences in a non-judgmental space, and they become more connected to their community through event planning and outreach.

They set their own priorities and have access to ‘wrap-around’ supports in times of crisis, in addition to basic needs like food, childcare and access to affordable housing. Once they are able to take care of her most immediate needs, they feel more secure and are able to deal with the violence in their lives.

“With abuse, a lot of you goes,” Zahrah says. “The pieces that need to be reclaimed return one piece at a time, but when you see it unfold in front of you, it’s quite an amazing thing.”

The Young Women at Risk program is delivered by the Sexual Assault Centre of Ottawa. The program’s empowerment groups were initiated with funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.