Swaziland, 28 May 2014: Child victims of abuse find a shoulder to cry on
By Chiara Frisone
This week, government and civil society representatives from 20 countries, as well as experts working on the topics of social protection and violence prevention and response, gather in Swaziland to discuss ways to translate data on violence against girls and boys into concrete measures to stop it.
In a village near Mbabane, Khanyisile Simelane is conducting her own meeting, talking to a group of children about abuse.
28 May 2014, Malyaduma, Swaziland – As a child, Khanyisile Simelane had reason to cry. Her parents abused her, and she had nowhere to turn.
“During my time,” she says, “you wouldn’t report ‘family’ issues to anyone.”
Now, at the age of 56, she is someone children can turn to. She is part of an army of volunteers who help child victims of abuse know they are not alone – that they have someone to talk to, someone who can help them.
A shoulder to cry on
Ms. Simelane is an elected community volunteer known in SiSwati as Lihlombe Lekukhalela – a shoulder to cry on. The Lihlombe Lekukhalela number 10,000. They address violence against children and women at the grassroots level, across Swaziland.
The volunteers’ task is not an easy one. One national survey conducted in 2007 revealed that about one in three females had experienced some form of sexual violence as a child, while one in four had experienced some form of physical violence as a child.
Girls and young children are at most risk of abuse. “In my village, girls on their way to school are tricked by cattle herders who offer them money,” explains Ms. Simelane. “[O]rphans are mostly left to their own devices.”
Orphans are many, in Swaziland. A country with a population of a little over a million, Swaziland has various socio-economic challenges, including the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Almost 80,000 children aged 0–17 lost one or both parents to AIDS in 2012.
To help support the children of Swaziland, care points have been set up in their neighbourhoods. At the care points, children can come for a meal, play and do their homework in a safe, supervised environment.
Today, Ms. Simelane stands before a group of children at her local neighbourhood care point. She tells a story and shows vivid illustrations to the children to educate them about abuse, and they are in her thrall.
She brings to life the story of Brother Snake, who lures the children in the village with sweets and then tries to abuse them. But, the children manage to escape. They run straight to an elephant to report Brother Snake. “Thanks to the big ears,” she says, “the elephant paid attention to what the children were saying.”
House visits and a one-stop shop
Ms. Simelane also goes through the village, door to door. She talks to women about how to identify different forms of abuse – and tells them how she can help. She is trained in basic counselling and is able to advise women and children about their situation.
If she feels the situation is too complex or she is out of her depth, she refers the case to the Swaziland Action group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) or another NGO, the police or the One-Stop Shop. The One-Stop Shop is a centre for children and women who have experienced abuse. There, they can receive counselling, healthcare and legal services under one roof.
Based in the capital, Mbabane, the One-Stop Shop has been open for less than a year. It provides support to children and women who have been abused, in a simple and sensitive manner.
Futhi Gamedze coordinates the centre. She says that things were very different for women before the One-Stop Shop was opened. “[M]any women who had suffered abuse were sent from pillar to post, making their experience more traumatic,” she explains.
Tackling a pervasive problem
In Swaziland, very few survivors of sexual abuse seek institutional support such as counselling or help from the police. Even fewer go to court to prosecute the perpetrator.
Ms. Gamedze echoes what Ms. Simelane said about ‘family’ issues. “In our community,” she says, “we have what we call Tibitendlu. People don’t come up, especially when abuse is made by a family member. They don’t come up to report because they feel these are family issues and should be dealt with within the family.”
The work of Lihlombe Lekukhalela has made a big difference, though, she says. “[N]ow we find that when people see that a child from a certain family has been abused, now they come up to report the abuse to the One-Stop Centre or to the police, and then we will go back and look for the family of that girl and work that case till the end.”
Swaziland looks forward to the day that crimes of sexual abuse and other violence towards children and women will be easier to prosecute – when the Sexual Offences and Domestic Violence Bill is made into law. For, Swaziland has the political will to address this social and public health problem.
In the meantime, and into the future, Ms. Simelane and her peers, the Lihlombe Lekukhalela, the elephants with big ears, are fighting the biggest battle of all. They are changing attitudes about abuse and empowering children and women through education and support, right in their communities.
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