Child Protection Week: Answer our children’s call for help
Abandoned, raped, sexually assaulted and abused, this is the harsh daily reality of thousands of children in South Africa. Unfortunately, according to a study by the Children’s Institute (CI) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), many of these serious and violent crimes go undetected and unreported – leaving the perpetrators at large – and young people abused with inadequate care and long-lasting psychological effects.
As the country observes Child Protection Week this week, UCT News shines the spotlight on a recent study by a team of CI researchers – Professor Shanaaz Mathews, Dr Neziswa Titi and Lucy Jamieson. The study is titled “Filling the Gaps in Services that Respond to Violence Against Women and Children”. The team concludes that it is essential in this process to draw on the support and expertise of community members, religious leaders, teachers, law enforcement and other sectors of society. to understand these service providers and how they operate.
“We know that educational institutions like schools, colleges and universities face issues of sexual violence, and this is all part of the broader sexual and gender-based violence pandemic in this country. Violence is prevalent in all communities, even ours on campus. Because of this scourge, providers and reactive services are experiencing empathy fatigue. But this fatigue should not cause more harm to victims and survivors,” said Dr Titi.
“Service providers have a duty to protect women and children from secondary trauma and their behavior should not further silence victims and survivors.”
In this study, researchers explore the myriad of services in place to support victims of violence in South Africa. It aims to understand what victims of violence expect from these services and assesses and analyzes the pitfalls. The study uses decolonizing methods to inform its contextual and culturally relevant findings at the end of the research process. The study is conducted in partnership with Masimanyane Women’s Rights International – a non-profit organization based in the Eastern Cape committed to supporting victims and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Violence against women and children is not just intersectional, it is intergenerational and requires a holistic and developmentally appropriate approach to get the answers we need.”
“Violence against women and children is not just intersectional, it is intergenerational and requires a holistic and developmentally appropriate approach to get the answers we need,” Titi said.
The project aims to achieve the following key objectives:
- conduct primary research to identify and understand where gaps exist in service delivery models for abused youth and their families
- improve stakeholder understanding of the intersections of violence against women and children
- map services and gaps in response and delivery to violence against women and children in a community.
Not a one-size-fits-all approach
Response services such as law enforcement and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are mandated to provide specific services and their members must be properly trained to respond to victims of violence and offer the support they need.
Because communities are not homogeneous, services should not take a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, Titi suggested that they be context-specific and tailored to the individual needs of the community.
“While all communities should have access to services of equal quality, the way services are packaged and delivered must be consistent with the needs and needs of women and children,” she said. “It is important to know exactly what these needs are. This will help service providers understand what they can do to ensure women and children seek services, participate in interventions, and adhere to needed treatment.
A methodology centered on Africa
To seek answers to their questions, the study took an Afro-centric and intersectional approach. It applies a decolonial framework and uses a child-centered research methodology to provide children with a platform to speak openly and freely.
“Afrocentricity is a paradigm for the study of African phenomena and takes into account the ways of being of individuals, their culture, their language and how these factors influence the way people experience services”, a- she declared. “The methods used for this study and how the researchers position themselves in relation to the participants are important. The knowledge produced here is an essential part of the Africa-centric approach.
Additionally, and by applying intersectionality as a specific theoretical framework, researchers are also able to understand and address issues such as race, class, gender, disability, and age.
Fear of being victimized
For children who are exposed to sexual and gender-based violence at home on a daily basis, research indicates that the scourge has become a normalized phenomenon. However, it is reassuring to note that children and adolescents do not see the experience of sexual and gender-based violence as normal.
“Indeed, sexual and gender-based violence is not normal and we must encourage women and children to speak out.”
“Indeed, sexual and gender-based violence is not normal and we must encourage women and children to speak out,” she said.
But what stops children from asking for help? Titi said they were suspicious of law enforcement agencies and feared being victimized and ridiculed for speaking out. Their concern that relatives, community members and religious leaders will reject their pleas for help is also real. Children also find it particularly difficult to report abusers who are close relatives or friends because of emotional ties and feel responsible for protecting their families from the stigma associated with sexual abuse.
Addressing the Question of Silence
“We need to address this issue of silence urgently. If we want to empower children to speak up, we need to adopt a community-based approach that builds the capacity of families and communities to listen to children and validate their opinions. We need to create supportive environments that encourage children to disclose these crimes, provide support and enable healing and recovery,” she said.
Schools also have a role to play in the process. Teachers should be trained to respond to children and refer them to psychosocial support. Law enforcement and health-care facilities should adopt a trauma-informed approach, which assumes that young victims of violence have experienced trauma in the past, and manage it with sensitivity and respect.
Titi also advised that service providers and those working in the area of violence receive psychosocial support to prevent burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary victimization.
Use available services wisely
South Africa has the services needed to deal with sexual and gender-based violence. However, Titi said, communication between the various law enforcement agencies involved and responding effectively to calls for help from victims are two of the biggest challenges. Service providers also struggle to effectively coordinate and implement their services, which has proven to have disastrous effects on the victim and the family.
“In previous research studies, we’ve learned that departments need to be in constant communication with each other to ensure needed services are integrated for victims of violence,” she said.
“We need contextually relevant services implemented in ways that appreciate the cultural, social, political and economic factors that shape help-seeking behaviors.”
“In addition to this, we need contextually relevant services implemented in a way that appreciates the cultural, social, political and economic factors that shape help-seeking behaviors. This is a fundamental step to fix what is wrong.