“It wasn't that I hated school, I liked it actually, and I used to get good grades," Osnat (not her real name) a teenager in Otzma Tzeira, WIZO's nationwide empowerment program for teenage girls, said. "But when I was 14 my body changed. I put weight on and began to feel very awkward. Some of the girls were very mean to me. They would taunt me on the playground, they called me ugly, and they gave me a horrible nickname: ‘Osnat, the fatty’ and I went from being a friendly and outgoing girl to becoming very withdrawn. I couldn't stand the teasing, so I started skipping school. It was just easier for me not to be there. My parents didn't have a clue. They thought I was just going to school, but I just stayed on the city bus till I got into town. I started to hang around downtown, in the bad areas where I knew I wouldn't be seen by anyone who knew me, and I made friends with women who made a living on the streets. They told me that men liked girls who had 'meat on their bones’ and they introduced me to Charlie, who promised me a future working for him."
"Charlie encouraged me to wear makeup. ‘You need to look older,’ he said. He bought clothes for me that were very revealing, clothes that my mother never would have let me wear. He told me the would take care of everything for me. I felt as though I was finally worth something.”
Osnat’s parents were totally oblivious to her acitivities as she hid her new identity as a prostitute from them. She was always home at the end of the school day, ‘pretending’ to study. Sometimes, she would go into school before leaving early with excuses of having to visit sick relatives, with her ‘work’ clothes hidden in her school bag. Osnat was enjoying her secret day job and she felt that she coped better with the taunts of her schoolmates.
“My whole life became one big lie, and as much as I felt guilty about deceiving everyone, I never believed I was deceiving myself and I had no idea that the school counsellor had her suspicions until one day she came to me and spoke frankly. Apparently, I had been seen. I burst into tears and told her the whole story. That's when she referred me to WIZO's Otzma Tziera program.
Now Osnat, along with 14 other girls, attends the local WIZO women’s center where the Otzma Tziera program takes place. She has found great comfort and support from counselors who listen but do not judge, and from the company of the other girls, each with their own unique story. They are empowered by a dynamic series of lectures, one-on-one and group conversations on a variety of subjects designed to strengthen their resolve and examine and improve their own self-worth.
“I am learning to respect myself and to love my body,” Osnat explained. “I have so much more confidence now and I am back on track concentrating on my studies, because I want to serve in the IDF in the Oketz (canine training) unit. After that, I will pursue the career I always dreamed about, becoming a veterinarian.
The Otzma Tziera program has made me realize that my future is dependent on the choices that I make today, and I am choosing to make my parents proud of me, but more than that, I am choosing to be proud of myself.”
Fourteen WIZO branches across Israel play an active role in the WIZO Otzma Tzeira program of empowerment of girls aged 13 – 18 who are at risk of making unhealthy life choices; girls who have suffered emotional traumas, social difficulties and dysfunction in the family. These are girls who often suffer in silence but whose school counselors have identified as being vulnerable. The program improves their personal identity, self-esteem, and coping strategies. Now in its 13th year, the Otzma Tzeira program has embraced and empowered many girls to aim higher and be the very best version of themselves.
(Names changed to preserve anonymity)
(Photo for illustration purposes only)