Helping vulnerable children navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

Trauma is part of the job, says Nokulunga Mnisi, ChildLine counsellor

By Nadia Samie-Jacobs
Nokulunga Mnisi, Mpumalanga, Childline counsellor
UNICEF/Africa Services Unit
30 April 2020

“I want to be there for that one child who thinks no one will believe her,” says Nokulunga Mnisi. She’s a crisis counsellor at ChildLine South Africa, a non-profit organization that provides a 24-hour toll-free telephone counselling service. The 32-year-old says trauma is part of her job. Every day when she answers the phone, she listens to painful stories from children and about children.

Since South Africa’s nationwide COVID-19 lockdown began, the call centre she works at in Mpumalanga province has experienced an increase in calls. Nokulunga says children and young people are experiencing emotional and mental stress. She’s noticed an uptick in the number of neglect cases in the areas she services, which are made up of predominantly low-income households. She says parents are not always paying attention to their children. In many cases, parents are stressed about a lack of income and employment, and sometimes they take this frustration out on the children. Heartbreakingly, young voices on the other end of the line sometimes tell the counsellor that they are hungry.

But Nokulunga has also seen the community pull together during this worrying time. Neighbours are looking out for each other, and some have called in about suspected abuse cases. Parents have expressed concerns about their children’s education, fearing the entire academic year may be lost. And as ever, grandparents are playing an important role, by stepping in when children’s parents are not available or able to cope.

Others simply want to talk, saying loneliness makes them feel sad.

“Sometimes, people call in just to hear a voice at the other end of the line,” says Nokulunga. “We talk about the virus, and what they can do to protect themselves, and how they can keep themselves busy at home. Sometimes when a child calls in, I can hear the parents arguing in the background.”

Nokulunga has been working from home since the lockdown began on 27 March 2020. She now takes calls in a room in her house, and her family knows not to disturb her when the door is closed. Her advice to children is to listen to their parents and caregivers. “They must understand that we need to protect them, and that we need to remain indoors at this time,” she says.

But most importantly, the counsellor has this message for young people: “Talking is part of breaking the chain of child abuse. Once you talk out, change will start to happen, no matter how long it takes.”

UNICEF is partnering with ChildLine to help build capacity in nine call centres around the country. The centres receive daily calls from children who experience anxiety, abuse, fear or difficulty with homework, or witness or experience domestic violence or online harassment.