Danyya Ateera is no ordinary girl. She volunteers at Beautiful People SG, mentoring at-risk teenage girls and actively advocates fostering. She was first sexually abused when she was nine years old by her stepfather. While growing up, Danyya was always beaten brutally when she misbehaved, with a hanger or a belt. In 2015, she went public with her story to raise awareness of child abuse and inspire other abuse victims to have hope and live a full life. All sale proceeds from her book go to VWOs helping family violence victims/survivors.
What do you think is the purpose of your existence? What do you think you are here on earth to do?
That is a question I often ask God. I first thought that my purpose was to be a voice for the voiceless. But being a voice only completes half of the equation. I managed to get out of my abusive childhood because people took a stand for me. They gave me the courage to make the choice to leave a familiar life and enter into a new life that was unknown to me. I think my purpose on Earth is to shed light on the darkest places. Places that are impossible to love. I’m overwhelmed by the overflowing of email and messages from strangers telling me how my book had impacted them in one way or another. No, I won’t be the next Adam Khoo or Dave Pelzer. I just want to be me. Beautiful People SG is an organization I volunteer for that enables me to mentor girls-at-risk. I am always reminded of how blessed I am to have had mentors in my life even after my discharge from a girls’ home.Beautiful People SG has taught me that I don’t have to be a celebrity to make an impact on others. The ‘me’ that I am is enough.
Please tell me how you spend an average day of your life. At what time do you get up, then what’s the first thing you do after waking up?
I get up at 6 am every morning and the first thing I do is to thank God. I thank Him for granting me another day to live my life and to make a difference to others. My greatest fear has always been that I do not wake up from my sleep. I feel that every day that I am blessed with is a chance for me to seek forgiveness from Him. I seek guidance to be a better person so that I can continue to be a blessing – to the people I work with and have a chance of meeting in the day.
I look forward to going to work every day! My job enables me to protect vulnerable people – mostly migrant workers. I keep their welfare in mind when I implement policies and design engineering controls. I learn so much from these beautiful souls! They work earnestly to earn a living in order to send money back home to their families. Every day, they teach me what it really means to be contented.
What drives you to strive for excellence?
I believe that before doing anything, we must ask ourselves what is our intention. The right intention drives me to strive for excellence. Be it at work or in my daily life, I always ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”. No matter how challenging my problem is today, I always feel that nothing’s ever going to be worse than the abuse I suffered as a child. My mentors are my sounding board. They help me on my road towards excellence.
What is ‘Even in Silence’ about?
‘Even in Silence’ is a memoir I wrote about my journey from sexual abuse to recovery. I reveal details of my interactions with my family, the caregivers, the legal system as well as the social work professionals who stayed with me since my suffering was brought to light. It is my own personal account.
What inspired you to write ‘Even in Silence’?
When I was undergoing psychological therapy to cope with my child abuse trauma, I often wished that I could meet others who have gone through the same ordeal as me. I wanted them to tell me that I was going to be okay. I wanted to know that there is still hope. I wanted to know that there is going to be life after an abuse. So survivor… ‘Even in Silence’ is for you.
Growing up, I saw the multiple challenges that my caregivers had to go through. They had to put up with so much and I truly hope that more support could be given to them. I also hope that professionals involved in handling family violence cases will read ‘Even in Silence’. You and I know that no system is perfect. There is always room for improvement. I hope that this book will make them reflect on their practices and see the impact that their decisions has on a child’s life.
What’s the most touching incident that you’ve experienced in your journey to publishing ‘Even in Silence’?
I have to say that I felt most moved by my group of anonymous donors. On my own, I wouldn’t have been able to publish ‘Even in Silence’. Previously, there were some potential donors who only wanted to sponsor the printing of my books if I conformed to their expectations. Some of their requests made me feel very uncomfortable. In contrast, these donors gave me free rein to write naturally. They don’t know me personally but had faith in me telling my story. They invested their time and resources to make my dream come true. I am so touched, Alia. They are really so sincere. They renewed my belief that my story can bring benefit to others. They remind me of a quote I once saw – “Faith is to believe in what you do not yet see.”
What is the greatest challenge you faced?
My greatest challenge was deciding to pen my story with my real name on it. I knew from the start that sexual abuse is not openly discussed in Singapore. I was so afraid of the reactions from my immediate family members. Although the names of the people involved in my story have been changed, I feared being charged with defamation. My manuscript had to go through rigorous screening from the legal side because I did not want to get into any trouble with the law.
Yes, I could have written my story using a pseudonym. But anyone can do that, can’t they? Anyone can write a story on horrendous abuse and say that it is theirs. However, I am a living, breathing example of someone who has had a terrible childhood. Maybe not just terrible but downright harrowing. I was once ashamed of my past. I asked myself a difficult question. I asked ‘How can I empower others to not let their past define them when I myself was running away from mine?’ I want victims to come forward and not be afraid. I want society to stop judging so that abuse victims will not fear to break the silence.
It’s ultimately my hope that the perpetrators out there will come across my book by chance. I want them to read it and understand the impact of their actions on their victims. I know that the reason why they are hurting others is because they are hurting inside. They need help too. But they also need to acknowledge the pain and hurt they have inflicted on others. They need to know how destructive their behaviour is.
What’s your latest project that you’re excited about?
My team has recently set up a Facebook page – Even in Silence Singapore. There, we will update on all our upcoming events and how you can go about getting a copy of Even in Silence. I am not making any money from the selling of my books. Instead, I have opted to donate to non-profit organizations. You can check where all the proceeds from the book sales are being channeled to. We welcome your comments on how the book has impacted you, whether good or bad. We are still learning and can always do better.
Who inspires you the most and why?
My former psychologist inspires me the most. She’s able to achieve a work life balance despite being a career woman. She’s also someone who is very kind and giving. When we formally ended therapy many years back, she was contemplating about being a foster parent. She struggled with her decision for a while. Initially, she went around to encourage people to foster, but she was not fostering herself. You see, she’s a psychologist by profession. Although she cared deeply about the children she worked with, it was not her job to play a caregiver’s role. Not many can actually walk the talk. But she always seeks God in all her decisions and soon, she became a foster parent. I felt very moved by her decision. That was what inspired me to go beyond just being a voice for the voiceless. I want to answer my heart’s calling; I want to work towards being a champion for social causes such as family violence.
What is your hope for the community?
My hope for our community is that we will not look away from the sight of injustice or evil. There must always be a line that separates between the light and dark. If that line fails, we will all fail. I agree with Desmond Tutu. He said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
What we need to also do is to work towards becoming a resilient community. I hope to empower other victims of family violence so that one day, they can empower others too. When individuals realize that they always have a choice, this will lead to a positive cycle. That is the community I want my future generation to grow in.
“I hugged myself to sleep that night and prayed that God would make my heart incandescent with light. And that I would leave fate to Him for He knew what was best and that, deep down, I knew I had been doing my utmost best to change for the better. Slowly, I began to understand that all the counseling in the world would not make the abuse go away. The abuse could never be undone but I could learn to live with it and not allow it to define me.”
— Excerpt from ‘Even in Silence: My Journey of Sexual Abuse and Recovery’
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