Breaking the cycle of child sexual abuse
In South Africa, as many as one in three young people have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lives. Reported cases of child sexual abuse have increased by 400% in the past 9 years. The poorly functioning police service combined with an overwhelmed social development service, mean that many cases of child abuse end up unreported, delayed, or de-prioritised over cases deemed more serious. Others cases are abruptly dismissed by the criminal justice process. Perpetrators are therefore rarely held accountable for their actions and, as a result, children remain vulnerable to further abuse.
Bobbi Bear works in Amanzimtoti, Kwa Zulu Nata, to break this cycle. They rescue and uphold the rights of sexually abused children while aiming to minimise their risk of HIV infection. Recognising that the typical process of collecting evidence from sexual abuse victims was re-traumatising for children and often unsuccessful, Bobbi Bear designed a toy bear as a non-threatening means for child victims to communicate the nature of the abuse, which could cross all language barriers. The illustrations made on the bear can then be used as evidence to assist the criminal justice process. Through this method, Bobbie Bear are able to assess the HIV/AIDS risk of child victims at the point-of-rescue, and intervene quickly to minimise the risk of infection.
In addition to rescuing, providing shelter and on-going counselling and therapy to child victims, Bobbi Bear helps to sensitively prepare them and their families for testifying in court. With the aim of discovering cases of abuse earlier and preventing escalation, Bobbi Bear conducts outreach in schools to educate teachers and staff about sexual abuse so that they are better able to identify and support potential victims.
“It’s hardly ever a stranger.” Says Bobbi Bear founder Jackie Branfield, “It’s often a family member, a neighbour, a teacher, a pastor, which is why it’s so hard for children to report.” It is through participating in other activities organised by Bobbi Bear, that many children have disclosed their abuse to staff or volunteers. During their support group every Saturday, children eat and play together, but Child Safety Officers are always on hand if any child wants to talk privately about abuse. This is also the case during their school outreach programmes, where many children have come forward after a session to disclose the abuse they are experiencing at home.
Bobbi Bear works to respond to abuse both in the short and long term. They ensure children are removed from harmful situations and are kept safe, while collecting evidence in a non-threatening way. They then continue to support survivors of abuse through therapy and counselling, while working to secure convictions of perpetrators in order to end impunity and the cycle of abuse. Their education and outreach programmes aim to identify children suffering in silence and raise awareness among adults working with children on how to respond effectively.