Report of Lesley’s visit, November 2009
Having left the cold and damp shores of the UK I was looking forward to, if nothing else, some warmth and sunshine in South Africa … but I wasn’t quite prepared for the blistering heat that met me. I know it is summer, but at 37°C it was a shock!
My first visit was to Soweto where we are supporting a community outreach project into the darker reaches of a local informal settlement full of itinerant, migrant, and local people – an uneasy mix at the best of times. Here there are no services at all for children and many small tots are left to fend for themselves both day and night. The volunteer workers we support are trying to help these children by identifying the most vulnerable and then working with the families to protect the children whilst referring them to social workers.
Then on to Big Shoes where we have been working with our friends Karen and Luke.
At Big Shoes they are particularly working with the police and welfare services about abandoned babies and little children … where the situation seems to be getting worse. The stories about the babies abandoned, the numbers, the state they are in and the places they are left don’t really stand repeating; suffice to say the situation in Johannesburg is truly bad with an increase of babies found abandoned, barely alive, discarded in a shocking way, and many found who have recently died. The numbers over the last couple of years has increased at a quite alarming rate. We are working with Big Shoes in 2010 to try to find out why some of this is happening so that we can target some specific help.
Next was a visit into the far reaches of North West province to the first of our Caring for Crèches [C4C] project where we are training ladies who run and work in crèches to recognise and deal with the abuse of these toddlers and small children.
This is such a successful project. We have, with our partners Childline SA, already provided vocational training to over 220 women in this province alone, and had reported the abuse of more than 800 small children. This is because the women, once trained, understand and recognise what is happening to their charges, and report the problems to Childline who take action. There is an additional benefit in that we find the women often start parenting classes and community awareness sessions to inform people about abuse and how to raise their children safely. It was great that recently a couple of men have been to the training – one, a Pastor, set up a crèche because he too saw what was happening and the levels of abuse against many toddlers in the surrounding area. Good male role models are so important. We will be funding Childline here to do another lot of training of yet more crèche ladies in 2010.
Off next to our friends at Imisebeyelanga where the growing numbers of our trained ‘green T-shirt’ brigade are really helping the communities, and identifying and supporting vast numbers of very vulnerable children.
It is a huge testament to the commitment of Germa and Rina and the many others at Imisebeyelanga who have, and continue to train and support the community workers in poverty stricken and often violent rural areas; these many 100’s of volunteers, with no pay and few thanks, sometimes risk life and limb to help those in need. You think I exaggerate? The day I left I heard of one young woman I have featured before – Martha who had such a terrible start, abused from the age of two years old, yet now runs an orphanage – she was out with one of her [female] community workers [currently being trained by Imisebeyelanga] and they were set upon by a gang of 10 youths who beat them and attempted to rape them. Fortunately their shouts were heard and they were rescued, but are now severely traumatised…. yet again. This is the kind of violence the community workers are potentially exposed to every day.
Now to another project in the far reaches of Limpopo province, just short of the Zimbabwe border, and to Mothiba crèche. This is the one we have helped setup and supported for the past 2 years; in a place where all the littlies are massively at risk and where, regularly, there were stories of babies of 12 months and 18 months and small children 2 years plus being sexually abused. The crèche started with 25 children and has now settled at around 75 children from 1 year to 5 years old. We support the training of the staff and their stipends; we funded equipment including the jungle gym, and a cook to ensure healthy nutrition. As the crèche has grown it has got more professional, more focussed on the children and their well-being and, because I have visited so often, I can see the real changes in many individual children from down-at-heel starving quiet mites; so it is such a joy to visit and see the changes in the children and their happy, noisy, energetic behaviours.
There are still instances of abuse picked up by the crèche ladies but hardly any now and the local head teacher came over to see us to reinforce what an excellent project it is. We are hopeful that this year, with the final building of earth toilets and a new stand pipe, that the crèche will gain formal registration. At this point we can withdraw our support and, in 2011, move to another area blighted by violence against small children – both Childline and the local school have an idea of where this might be.
So on to another province, Mpumalanga, the one sandwiched between Johannesburg and the Kruger National Park, and also bordering Mozambique and Swaziland. This is yet more vast tracts of land miles from towns, massive rural poverty and many traditional cultural practices still in place.
Here we are also working with Childline and supporting the second major C4C programme training the crèche ladies. Here they have, astonishingly in the last 12 months, managed to train over 150 people working in crèche in some of the most inaccessible areas imaginable. I flew to Nelspruit [on the edge of the Kruger Park] and we drove 2½ hours south and into the hills and mountains where the only employment is occasional forestry work and people barely subsist. I met the current group of learners in a perishing cold church hall and many had never seen real white women so were quite silenced by us!
Then we went to several of the local crèches where the women had already attended the training and what a grateful and committed group of women they are; and what terrible stories of abuse they tell. One crèche we went to, funded by the local authority, takes in the most vulnerable orphans and the lady in charge tells us she knows that at least [AT LEAST] a quarter of her charges [that is 12 small children out of 50] are being badly abused – stories about their behaviours, bleeding, acting out and other things too grim to mention. Because there is one social worker for about 700sq km there is no chance of any formal help, and the community clams up: one parent she tackled about the abuse of a 2 year old took the child from the crèche and the mite is now left alone all day – punished by isolation, no contact with other children and probable continuing abuse. At another crèche the women who approached parents to talk to them about their little girl of 18 months old who had bleeding in her nappy was later threatened with serious violence, so the abuse continues.
Childline in Mpumalanga are valiantly trying to reach many of these inaccessible areas with a US AID funded project for vulnerable children, and our C4C project dovetails very neatly with that so the plan is that the US funded local careworkers will now pick up on these individually identified cases of abuse and talk with the local Chiefs and Pastors about how to deal with this in the communities.
Having recovered from all this whistling about the country and the many black stories I finally landed back in Johannesburg. I then went to talk with our partners and friends at Johannesburg Child Welfare Service, where they continue to provide training for urban community workers on how to recognise and deal with child abuse, particularly the little ones. They have completed several training programmes in 2009 putting 45 people through the very specialist and impressive training, and we are now planning for 2010. It is estimated that for each person who goes through this training at least 4 small children are identified as being abused, and are then appropriately treated. We can only guess the further impact, but it is clear that women working in crèches have an impact on the lives, and the parents lives, of at least a further 50 children.
One of the most exciting new ventures is that next year we hope to fund training for the foster and informal carers who take in small children when they need a place of safety. These are mostly tots, severely abused, most of whom have needed medical treatment, who have to go through the court system and can’t go home again, but need lots of love and care and support.
The history has been that these placements often break down because the ‘new parents’ don’t really understand what has happened to the child, and how they might behave. Often the children ‘act out’ and behave completely inappropriately towards the adults and any children in the family…. and people have to understand what is happening otherwise the children get rejected again, and again, and again until they end up in a children’s home and all that that entails. This is essential work to help ensure abused toddlers and small children have a chance to recover and learn to trust adults again.
It’s been, yet again, an instructive, informative, and affirming visit. We may never be able to cure the world as there is such a massive need, but we are making a difference here and there; often simply by visiting and listening, in understanding the reality of the situation then investing in local people …. it really helps.
To those who support our work, thank you is the least I can say, and know that you are making a real difference in the lives of small children.
the infant trust