Lillian Liberman Shkolnikoff

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 1999
This description of Lillian Liberman Shkolnikoff's work was prepared when Lillian Liberman Shkolnikoff was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .


Lilian Liberman is combining video production with an educational model of discussion therapy to sensitize children and families to the problem of child abuse and break the cycle of sexual and physical violence against children.

The New Idea

Lilian has developed a model for educating and sensitizing people to the taboo subject of sexual abuse and physical mistreatment of children. Through the organization she created called Yaocíhuatl (meaning woman warrior), Lilian combines the production of high-quality educational videos dealing with child abuse with a therapeutic model for structured discussions that help parents, children and educators detect, prevent and treat cases of abuse. Lilian trains facilitators to present the videos and provide guidance in follow up sessions to help positively channel people's reactions to the content. Facilitators rely on a network Yaocíhuatl constructed of civil society organizations and government agencies which deal with violence against children to refer children and adults to the appropriate professionals and provide follow though for cases of extreme abuse. Yaocíhuatl videos and discussions seek to increase individual and group awareness about abuse, while providing vehicles which allow people to identify abusive situations (be they victims or abusers), bring an end to the violence and prevent its replication. Lilian is creating spaces for dialogue about the long-ignored subject of child abuse within the formal educational and health systems in Mexico by using Yaocíhuatl's alliances with government ministries and the social sector as the primary vehicle for disseminating the videos and training programs. Other initiatives to confront child abuse have tended to have a local/individual focus with a reactive approach to provide services to victims of abuse. In contrast, Lilian is joining her educational/preventative approach to child abuse with an aggressive spread strategy to provoke the profound attitudinal change needed to end patterns of sexual abuse and mistreatment affecting children, adolescents and adults.

The Problem

According to reports by the Mexican Procuraduría de Defensa del Menor y la Familia (Attorney General's Office for Defense of Minors and the Family) and the Programa del Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, (Integral Development of the Family Program, DIF) there were 15,441 reports of child abuse in 1995. This figure increased steadily over the years and in 1998, 23,109 cases of child abuse were reported to Mexican authorities. After investigating the reported cases, the Procuraduría and DIF concluded that the number of individuals attended was greater than the figures suggest because cases of child abuse are handled per family by the authorities and not per individual child. Reported cases commonly involved families with multiple victims of abuse. Therefore, according to the Procuraduría, in 1997 and 1998, 25,259 and 23,239 children were attended to respectively. Forty-three percent of these cases were due to physical harm, 24% to emotional abuse, 5% to sexual abuse and 28% to neglect.

While these statistics indicate a widespread problem of child abuse, they represent only a fraction of the overall cases of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. In the vast majority of cases, child abuse is not reported, especially in cases of sexual abuse in which social taboos prevent victims and their families from coming forward. Typically only the most extreme cases of abuse or where trained individuals have been able to recognize the problem and intervene are cases reported to authorities. The effects of high instances of child abuse are felt beyond the victims and their families and present a larger problem to society as a whole. Studies on the subconscious mind show that child abuse and mistreatment leave a long-term psychological impact. Common problems for victims of abuse include low self esteem, poor school performance and job productivity and the perpetuation of a cycle of violence in future relationships.

Despite these very real effects of abuse, there continues to be a pervasive societal attitude to ignore child abuse and mistreatment. According to Lilian, the attitude persists because people in general do not know how to recognize abuse, react to instances of abuse in public or within their own families, or understand the dynamics which sustain abusive situations. The tendency to look the other way in the face of child abuse or accept it as normal leads to continued exploitation, repression, humiliation and neglect of children who cannot protect themselves. When applied, governmental and organization's approaches to confronting child abuse have been inconsistent and dispersed and usually focus on "treatment" for victims rather than preventing its occurrence.

The result is a general failure to preserve respect for children's dignity and rights. The formal education system, which is in a position to reach a majority of children and parents, rarely includes education that is directed at improving the emotional well-being of the families. Training and resources that help parents resolve conflicts within the home, nurture their children's capabilities, recognize their limitations and give children the ability to voice their own needs are seldom provided as part of formal curricula. Without these preventative resources, the cycle of violence and abuse of children persists.

The Strategy

Because of the hidden nature of child abuse and the physical and emotional damage it causes to victims, Lilian has adopted the most viable approach to combating the problem: prevention. Recognized by government officials as the first to engage in direct child abuse prevention, Lilian has developed a model that uses the combination of educational videos and trainer-led discussion groups to help participants recognize, prevent and treat abuse. Lilian feels that even if children do not suffer abuse, they can still prevent it from happening to them; if they are victims of abuse, families must examine the underlying causes, perhaps leading to professional advice and/or intervention.

The first stage of the model is video production. With a team of communications professionals and other staff at Yaocíhuatl, Lilian creates and produces high quality educational videos that deal with the themes of sexual and physical abuse of children. Lilian and her team have conceived, produced and disseminated at least five videos at the national, regional and international levels. The themes of these videos have included sexual abuse, physical abuse, child abduction and a soon-to-be released video dealing with teenage pregnancy. They rely on simple language for the clear transmission of messages in a respectful and neutral fashion. The videos are directed to children and adults.

The second stage of the model is the development of manuals and training courses for facilitators and educators to present the video to children and adults, teach participants how to handle the emotionally charged themes, lead a structured discussion of the material, and replicate the model. Lilian and the Yaocíhuatl team, together with the Mexican Secretary of Public Education (SEP) have created manuals which show how to use the videos to achieve these goals. The training courses include material on emotional and psychological education, as well as reference guidelines and additional resources. This vital training provides facilitators with the tools make the video-viewing experience effective in changing the way the subject of abuse is dealt with. In addition, these facilitators become important in the spread of the model as trainers for other facilitators.

The trained facilitators organize joint presentations of the videos with teachers in their own classrooms for both children and parents. After viewing the video, children are taken to a different room where their questions are dealt with in depth by staff trained to work with abused children. The trained facilitator of the presentation remains with the parents and leads a structured discussion session following a psychological methodology called "revaluation co-counseling". Co-counseling is an internationally recognized therapy method that has been useful in dealing with treating minor neurosis in which adults meet in pairs to voice their deepest concerns and feelings under the guidance of a trained group leader.

Lilian has adapted co-counseling in her strategy as a method for leading adults in discussions of the videos dealing with child abuse. When the video ends, the parents are divided in random pairs for spans of five minutes. They are invited to voice their reactions to the material in the video, their feelings about their children (often expressed for the first time), or their anger or frustration and their own experiences with abuse. Participants are encouraged to identify ways they have felt pain and in what ways they have hurt others in order to come to terms with that pain and cease to be abusers themselves. The co-counseling sessions present a way for trained individuals to channel the information from the video in a positive way in order to increase understanding about how abuse begins, is sustained and can be prevented, ending the cycle of abuse. After the initial session, the facilitators invite the adults to form their own independent groups which hold weekly sessions where participants use the co-counseling method to continue to work on their personal problems.

Facilitators are also key actors in the third stage of the model: referral of cases of severe abuse. In cases where the emotional damage of abuse surpasses the therapeutic intervention provided in the Yaocíhuatl sessions, facilitators and Yaocíhuatl staff refer children or adults to professional and competent civil society organizations or other relevant government agencies which specialize in child abuse. Using her skill at developing partnerships, Lilian constructed a network of over seventy-five civil society organizations and government ministries dealing with children's issues to allow Yaocíhuatl to follow through with referral cases, disseminate her model, and develop a strong base of support. Part of this follow through process includes involving the media in publicizing cases of abuse that go to trial and lobbying for stronger laws against abuse and child exploitation.

Lilian is disseminating her model primarily within public ministries, schools, civil society organizations, and the media. She has demonstrated remarkable success at connecting up with institutions that can and will commit themselves to using and spreading her model. As one of her first priorities, Lilian is rooting her program within the formal education system and, as a result, Yaocíhuatl has organized several training courses for teachers working for the Ministry of Education. Workshops have been conducted at the pre-school, elementary and junior high school levels. Training sessions have been extended to staff at the DIF, civil society organizations, social workers, psychologists and individuals who have personally requested the training.

Since 1992, Yaocíhuatl has trained more than 500 people in the correct use of videos for the prevention of sexual abuse of minors. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 children and their families have been sensitized to the problem of mistreatment and prevention of sexual abuse. Nationally, Lilian will continue to disseminate her model through the Ministry of Education, SEP and DIF in order to reach the largest number of people. The SEP has already supported implementing Lilian´s model at the state level in Morelos by disseminating 65 video copies to schools. In addition, Lilian's videos have been shown in all the pre-schools in Mexico City.

Internationally, Lilian has already been successful in spreading her work because of the high quality of her video productions and participation in international conferences. "Chicoca" a video on child mistreatment and abuse won two awards, one in the Children's Film Festival in Uruguay, and the other in Havana, Cuba for being the best pedagogical work. "Chicoca" has been dubbed into Hungarian, Italian, and Mazahua and is being used in Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Peru and Spain. Lilian introduced the work to the World Health Organization in Geneva and it will be exhibited in October of this year at the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse (ISPCAN). In addition to continuing to spread her model for sensitizing people to child abuse, Lilian plans to create videos and use her methodology to address other the issues relating to the well being of children including education and adult-child relations in general.

The Person

Lilian endured economic hardship during her childhood. Coming from a Jewish family in a predominantly Catholic country, Lilian also experienced isolation and rejection for her religious beliefs in school and in society in general. All of these experiences prompted her to focus on her studies so that she could escape from her difficult childhood.

After graduating from the university, Lilian had the opportunity to enter a masters program in linguistics in France. She lived in France and participated in the feminist movement of the 70s. Lilian's engagement with French feminist thought and action influenced her greatly. It taught her important lessons on solidarity, and sparked in her a profound interest in group and social dynamics. Subsequently, she began studying video production. Despite the highly male-dominated field she was entering, Lilian soon arose as a promising producer and distinguished director for film, television and video. In her personal life, she began to engage in spiritual work and made it a life-long commitment to respect and love others.

In 1989, Lilian responded to a psychologist's request for help in creating an educational video about sexual abuse. The experience of producing the pilot, struck profound feelings in her about child abuse. It was at this moment that Lilian decided to dedicate herself to creating educational materials to prevent this abuse from happening to others. Through working on the video, she came to understand the importance of linking the visual images and message of the video with the need to link educational materials and training in order for the work to be effective. Lilian then pulled together a team of communication professionals interested in collaborating in the social work model she developed. In 1992, she founded the organization Yaocíhuatl, and now seeks to consolidate her strategy for international replication of her straightforward model.