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Jabu's long walk to comfort

by Neville Josie

Umlazi, about 13km south on the motorway from the coastal city of Durban, is a township that appears disquietingly indifferent to its extreme predicament. Sour breezes blow in from the direction of the multi national oil refining plants on the peripheries of a buzzing industrial hub. Just beyond, Durban’s International Airport gleams weakly as the rays of a retreating sun tag at the wing tips of aircraft departing and arriving.

Umlazi is a suburban squash of owner built and council houses, hostels, plush bungalows and large pockets of communities long settled in makeshift or informal housing, popularly branded as squatter settlements. Umlazi, a relic of the apartheid past was built to house a mix of skilled and semi-skilled professionals in addition to pools of unskilled labour servicing nearby industries. The township has also experienced its bloody share of the political violence allegedly perpetrated by those acting on behalf of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the African National Congress (ANC) or a third force out to derail the new democracy. For the time being a fragile peace prevails as the community waits with bated breath in the run up to the elections of 2004.

Passing through the hospital security and boom gates, I see the outpatient’s cues lengthen. I pass on the left a perimeter wall dividing the health facility from a community literally pushing and shoving at the boundaries. A fading mural proclaims it the “Wall of Hope.” I want to believe. To the right huddle solid but dull institutional strength buildings, whose boiler rooms churn out steamy waste into dirty skies. As a rule, I don’t like hospitals. Never have as a child nor do I as an adult. It’s that lingering smell, a gassy cocktail of medicine spiked with boiled cabbage, the alienating severity of the uniformed staff and the chill of a space that never fails to disconcert.

I walk the length of the passages at Prince Mshiyeni, holding my breath. At first glance this hospital, with its long and hardwearing corridors appears to be a chip of an unimaginative old block – an institutional blueprint providing public health services beyond its capacity for the poor who cannot afford the salubrious environment of private health facilities. It’s so unfriendly. At second and third glance, this perception sticks and hardens because it’s a cold, long walk to the Comfort Center.

A Comfort Center that provides integrated services to victims of sexual abuse, a one-stop shop is what development organizations like UNICEF and other service providers in the public sector have been dreaming about, lobbying for and honing into policy for a while now. The Prince Mshiyeni initiative is one of 7 pilot sites throughout the country being developed, supported and monitored by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the Interdepartmental Management Team (IDMT).

I arrive at wing C-4 of the hospital, finally; pass through the iron clad security door and step into the Comfort Center. The satellite police office meets me head on, about fifty paces into the Center. Walking past the police office, I glance at a young girl leaning uncertainly towards a vacant desk. To the right are the District Surgeons office and the counseling rooms. So, this is the Comfort Center. I wouldn’t have known if I wasn’t told.

Except for the empty police office it looks like the hospital interior, it was always designed to be. The Crisis Center reinvented as the Comfort Center strives to conform to the quest for user-friendly public services working in the best interests of the community, especially abused children and youth according to District Surgeon, Dr Vajjnah Mohammed.

Breathtaking Statistics

“Seventy per cent of the abuse cases are incest related. A neighbor usually brings in the children but when children come in on their own, they have the advantage of accessing in a non-threatening environment all the services relating to their trauma in one place. I generally see about 200 cases of sexually abused children a month,” Dr Mohammed adds in a matter of fact tone unsuccessfully disguising the quiet desperation and exhaustion of someone who is privy to a community falling apart at the seams.

“Mmmm, but there were 300 cases in the month of May,” the doctor who refuses to become immune to statistics so breathtaking in its horror, softly lets on. “We’re not only dealing with the symptoms of rape and abuse but the consequences of those violations and the causes. There must be more involvement of the community for successful prevention but even when they do stand up, they do not get the support they need.

I first glimpsed the pretty schoolgirl in a black gymslip hovering at the vacant police officers desk at the Comfort Centre of the Prince Mshiyeni Hospital when I arrived earlier that morning.  When I was leaving at about 2:30 the girl was still there disconsolately staring up at the expressionless face of the woman police officer. I introduced myself to the schoolgirl Jabu and policewoman Inspector Mbambo. Not surprisingly, both were reluctant to talk to me. Dispelling any fears that I might be from the media, I eventually heard a story of despair and survival.  Except, of course, that it could be the story of so many of the girls, barely making it through their childhood, in the township of Umlazi.

The open veldt on the fringes of the township is a straggle of sub-tropical vegetation. Banana palms, syringa and mango trees jostle with the wild plum. Sparrows, white eyes and grey doves scatter in feathered frenzy at the slightest provocation. At the foot of the trees, peering from beneath the rustle of tall grass a lone six-year-old girl hugs her quivering body and quietly sobs. Abandoned on the veldt by her parents nine years ago and rescued by members of the community, Jabu was reunited with relatives who pressurized her into being caregiver to their children. She hadn’t even turned 10 yet.

Spotted by a social worker she was taken to a place of safety. But institutions don’t always turn out as they should and Jabu soon found herself shunted between a foster home, a place of safety again and an alcoholic grandmother where at the age of 12 she was sexually abused and raped several times by a neighbour. That was in 2000.

It’s now 2003 and Jabu Mshengu is a fifteen-year-old Grade 7 pupil living with foster parents, Mr and Mrs Tshabalala in U Section of Umlazi Township. When she is not participating in the positive stimulation provided by the resourceful Mrs Tshabalala’s dancing and singing classes Jabu waits, a study in extreme patience. She waits with utter resignation. She experiences a sense of betrayal so abject, so monumental that it overshadows the extraordinary gains made in a democracy that is 9 years old.

South Africa’s high levels of reported cases of rape are no secret. Some reports suggest that South Africa has the highest number of rape cases in the world. Reports have been written and presented at the highest level of government. Legislation is being reviewed. Strategies have been developed by lead agencies such as the National Directorate of Public Prosecution (NDPP) and an Interdepartmental Management Team (IDMT) comprised of the departments of Social Development and Safety and Security.

Despite these efforts, Jabu Mshengu continues to wait. She is waiting for the supreme law of the land, South Africa’s constitution to take effect – a constitution declaring that in all matters affecting the child, the best interest of the child is of paramount importance. But Jabu is not aware that the South African government has given top priority to the prevention of sexual violence against women and girls.

 “Communities and children like Jabu, don’t have the necessary information to claim their rights,” says Linda Dhabjaran, Director of Childline, an UNICEF-supported NGO that provides counselling services to the Comfort Center. “Organizations like UNICEF can play a bigger role here, by providing training, materials and information to service providers, households and children on how to negotiate procedures and access services.” Ms Dhabjaran emphasizes. In the interim Jabu’s disenchantment with and exclusion from the processes of democratic governance and the justice system let alone her detachment from life itself, is felt so palpably, that for all she knows, she could be in another country - a country in which the majority of women and girls struggle to enjoy their constitutional rights.

And so, her wait lengthens from days, to weeks, to months and years. She waits to reclaim her right to dignity and what’s left of her childhood. She waits for her abuser to be charged and brought to court. She waits for reparations. She waits for the same system that was quick to grant her attacker bail, to take action on her behalf. She waits for the police officer, from the Child Protection Unit, to inform and advise her on court dates, the legal processes and what is in her best interest. He never does.

Instead, softly spoken Inspector Mbambo of the satellite police station at the Comfort Center informs me that Jabu’s files and docket have been “lost” twice since the case was first reported at the end of 2001. It is now the third time that a file has been opened. While everyone seems to realize what’s going on no one seems to know what to do. Jabu however, may not know what to do but she’s clear about what she wants. “I want the suspect charged and convicted because what he did to me was horrible. He’s a dangerous man.” As if that’s not enough Jabu adds that the suspect, who is the head of a household, owns two tuck-shops and is out on bail, is known to declare proudly to his male acquaintances that now that he’s finished with Jabu, she’s up for grabs. When there’s so little for Jabu to look forward to but so much to be afraid of, it is little wonder that she smiles so rarely.

Eskamel’s tagline on a billboard proclaiming “The confidence of a clear beautiful skin” gazes smugly down upon a community in the thrall of fear and a culture of silence. “What is the matter with our attitude, customs and culture? If we want to promote “ubuntu” (togetherness) where is it to be found? And where are the solid family preservation programs?” implores Buyi Mbambo, Child Protection Officer for UNICEF South Africa. In a community afraid to take action against perpetrators, who are usually the sole breadwinners in families struggling to eke out a living, violations will necessarily go unsanctioned and unreported. In an environment that breeds reprisals, Jabu Mshengu and others like her will continue to remain vulnerable and open to exploitation.

We must revive the spirit of caring in communities

“Children are not living at the level of statutes and policy.” ‘Buyi Mbambo continues. “We (UNICEF) need to provide support by helping to build local capacity. We must revive the spirit of caring in communities so that strong family and neighbourhood monitoring systems and forums can be put in place. There are good examples of this happening in a community like Inanda, on the North Coast of Durban, for instance.”

While the idea of an integrated one-stop shop such as the Comfort Center at the Prince Mshiyeni hospital is a good one, in reality integration between the different sectors, (police, social workers, prosecutors, health workers) could work a great deal better.

Some of the things the Center does effectively are to provide treatment, counselling and anti-retrovirals to sexually abused women and children. It’s a struggle though, as overextended staff point out.  The Centre in the institutional setting of a hospital must succeed to create a good working model for success in communities. Busi Biyela, a social worker who provides support at the Centre says all the sectors need training, need their capacity developed and need mentoring.  “I would like to see the cases handled with sensitivity. Did you know that in Umlazi no cases have been successfully prosecuted? My concern is that there are a whole range of issues, when not dealt with on time ends up causing secondary trauma to both the children and their caregivers.” Ms Biyela concludes.

In Umlazi the prognosis appears dire especially if you’re poor, lack a birth certificate, have no household income, little or zero access to grants of any kind, no police protection, are HIV positive and a girl child. On the continuum from infancy to adult-hood almost all of the rights of Jabu Mshengu are being systematically violated. She struggles in vain to catch up with a childhood that so far has eluded her. This situation can change for the better, say District Surgeon Dr Mohammed, “if all commit ourselves to working together.”

Although the challenges of protecting the rights of children such as Jabu are enormous, UNICEF sees birth registration as an important entry point towards ensuring that the children such as Jabu are protected and that they can have better access to the social services that can improve their lives.  UNICEF is collaborating with the provincial and national departments of Health, Home Affairs and Social Development as well as key NGOs, to establish birth registration centres in hospitals all over the province of KwaZulu Natal and South Africa’s eight other provinces.  It’s an ambitious programme aimed at providing children with a vital key to accessing critical social services.  That’s the good news!

I left Jabu Mshengu after an unsuccessful foray at the local Magistrates Court on Saturday morning. We were informed on Friday that her case was going to be heard. It was the first time Jabu was aware of it. Jabu informed the police officer from the Child Protection Unit responsible for her. He promised to meet her at the court but did not turn up. And nobody at the court seemed to know what we were talking about. A Prosecutor said that the case might have been heard on Friday. A lawyer said the case was scheduled for the Saturday. Jabu pointed out the Advocate acting for the accused in her case. He looked satisfied and portly, back to the wall in his lawyerly black robes. But there was zero help for Jabu. Indifferent police officers hung around in groups, shaking their heads, gesturing with open palms, unable to help. I’ve been informed that the province of Kwa Zulu-Natal has adopted a protocol that provides guidelines for all service providers in dealing with child abuse. But the question is how informed are the service providers on the protocol and who on earth is monitoring and reporting its implementation.

With no success at the court, Jabu Mshengu asks for a ride to the library in the Boyi Simelane Community Centre. “I’ll try to finish my homework,” she says. We drive pass the Woza Woza Butchery and Viva Supermarket. Business goes on as usual in Umlazi. We drop off Jabu. She waves at us in a T-shirt commemorating the victory of South Africa’s youth on June 16 1976. “United in action to push back the frontiers of poverty” the print reads. And still, Jabu does not smile.





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