Maïté Lønne, 27, knows the importance of speaking out against violence - her own testimony helped bring down a sexual exploitation network in Liège and put its ringleader behind bars. She was one of hundreds of women who were exploited by the network, but one of just a dozen willing to go on the record. Ms. Lønne understands why.
“Because of the shame we felt about what we’ve experienced, because of poor support, because of guilt, but also because victims’ words were not taken seriously, almost no one dared to say anything,” she says.
“I realized that for girls and women experiencing sexual violence, there was a huge problem with knowing who to turn to… Thanks to the rise of feminism, victims are increasingly speaking out.”
Today, she is a member of the Observatory of Violence against Women and the Belgian spokesperson for Innocence in Danger, an international organization that works to protect children from all forms of violence, including sexual violence.
“I experienced a lot of psychological, physical and sexual abuse during my childhood,” she says. “I was abused by a family member. I was abused by a patient in the psychiatric hospital that I was placed in… I’ve met a lot of suffering children who’ve been abused, either on the streets, in psychiatric hospitals or in childhood care homes.”
Her traumatic childhood led to drug use and left her vulnerable to predatory behaviour. “When I reached the age of 18, the care homes just pushed me out the door,” she says. “As an abused child who was never given support, I was propelled into a society that I couldn’t deal with, that I didn’t understand.”
She says it’s critical that services respond not just to the symptoms of violence, but to the links between all forms of violence.
“Each survivor has a different story, but at the end of the day our problems are the same.”
Her creative work as an author and actor have helped on the road to recovery. “What saved me was the theatre, staging, writing, martial arts,” she says. “This has all contributed to rebuilding myself as a person.”
Her friendships with survivors of childhood violence and sexual violence have driven her efforts to make ending sexual exploitation a political priority. She is also working to ensure that survivors are incorporated into the broader #metoo movement.
In 2018, she spoke about sexual exploitation at an international event organised in Paris by CAP International (Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution).
“Being able to speak amongst a group of survivors was absolutely unbelievable,” she says. “I’ve been able to meet survivors from around the world. From France, Germany, Spain, Africa. I think that all together we will be able to create something huge.
“Previously, when I was asked how I was, I would say, ‘Well, I'm surviving.’ Not very long ago, I replied instead, “I'm alive.’”
Maïté Lønne supports Innocence in Danger Belgium and Isala.