May 11 2016

Where urban violence hits children

In South African communities reeling from poverty, drug epidemics and gang violence, SOS Children’s Villages and their community-based partners look for new ways to keep children safe in their families.

Ennerdale, a community on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in South Africa, has experienced drastic change in recent years. Where previously there were no informal settlements, there are now five. People seeking work in Johannesburg have ended up in the informal settlements in Finetown, around Ennerdale, where residents have no access to water, sanitation or electricity. During protests, streets are blocked off and all matter of material is set alight. In an extreme case, the local clinic was burned down.

Children from Ennerdale have at times been prevented from going to school because of the violence in the streets.

Sam Motsitsi, programme director at SOS Children’s Village Ennerdale in Johannesburg, says that keeping children in SOS’s care safe from drugs is proving to be challenging considering the community they live in.
Children at an SOS Children's Village in South Africa. Photo: Sune Kitshoff
“We can no longer look at family-based care and family strengthening, or community support, as separate programmes. We have to be systematic about it and go back to basics. As such we now focus on one informal settlement around the village, strengthening the capacity of community-based organisations. When they are ready and can function independently, we will move on to the next community. Our impact is much more than basic food parcels; we need capacity so that our communities are able to care of their children in a safe environment,” he says.

Marcia Cannon, programme director of the SOS programmes in Cape Town, where similar issues of drug abuse and community violence are present, agrees that interventions to assure sound child welfare are changing and have to change. 

She shares a recent incident having to separate biological siblings – a contrary step to SOS Children’s Villages' policy of always seeking to ensure siblings grow up together.

“We did this because of suspected sexual abuse by the older siblings. Does this mean there was sexual abuse in the biological home, does the father do this? We don’t know, but he has admitted to us in sober moments that he beats his son, ‘kicking to kill him’. The father is addicted to cocaine and mandrax. We are in a society that is like that.”

Children generally come from surrounding communities, but the need is such in the province that children come from further afield, including hard-core gang areas.

“Our children go home over holiday periods, but recently we’ve had parents say that the children cannot come, as gangs are at war with constant gunfire in the streets. However, when children do go back to these areas they come home to us with changed behaviour. All the love, support and care undone in one weekend; then we start again,” says Cannon.

Little boys playing in a jungle gym at an SOS Children's Village, South Africa. Photo: Hilton Wall

Karl Muller, interim programme director for the SOS East and Southern Africa region, suggests that there is a tension between the social milieu and its influence on the children in SOS families. In Cape Town the culture of drugs and gangs present an opportunity “to belong” to children who have a deep need to belong.

“Children in our care come from a traumatic background; they are abandoned or abused. Most of our established children’s programmes are in communities of dysfunction – that is where there was a need. Then we separated our SOS families from the community. So the tension between the SOS family and the community is in fact multiplied. Our children are children with many questions, like ‘Why me?’” explains Muller.

Being part of the community

SOS Children’s Village Ennerdale has plans to open up its under-utilised buildings to the community so that it can be used for a clinic and library, as two examples. It has already given office space to No More Victims, a local NGO that provides drug rehabilitation for children in the community. The NGO also provides support for parents who use drugs. No More Victims offers their services and counselling free of charge to SOS Children’s Village Ennerdale. Through this NGO it was possible for SOS Children’s Village Ennerdale to connect to strong community-based organisations (CBOs), such as Making A Difference, which has a large skills development centre, assisting former drug addicts to get employment.

SOS Children’s Village Cape Town is exploring the possibility of offering a place of safety to children in immediate danger or who are temporarily removed from their parental care. As the need in the province requires more short-term solutions, such as a temporary home for two young children who spent their days in a public park whilst their mother worked as a prostitute, SOS Children’s Village Cape Town is endeavouring to provide a programme that addresses need rather than convention.

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