When asked whether some girls on the street were more vulnerable than others, Pam explained the unique situation for girl children on the streets in South Africa. “In South Africa, all girl children are at risk of sexual violence, and women are being murdered all the time. But we also have many refugee children, who are exploited by employers in South Africa and do not have paperwork to access services. There are also many South African children who do not have documentation like birth certificates and struggle a lot. Children who live with HIV/AIDS and children who have disabilities are also at risk, but these are often hidden problems in our community.” However, Pam emphasized that vulnerabilities cannot be the only aspect of these children’s lives that are highlighted. She says they also have many strengths, such as remarkable capacities to be cheerful and full of life. “They often live outside of society’s norms so know how to be free. That is something very endearing and often annoying when I am trying to get them to do their homework [laughs]. And their resilience – they have had so many things happen to them and they still come back; they want and give love, and do not give up easily.”
When asked if she has stayed in touch with any of the girls who have left the shelter, she answers affirmatively and recounts some success stories, “Some are doing very well. One is married to a pastor [religious leader] and is doing difficult work as a social worker in a state institution. She really is a tower of strength and served on our Board. We have another girl who studied business and has started her own small business in Botswana, and another who married and lives in Italy.”
However, not every story ends positively, and the staff at Ons Plek often navigate how to cope with these challenges. “Each person that comes to work at the shelter has to go on a journey. There are always three or four children who really get you down,” says Pam. But she explains that the staff get through these rough patches because the team is supportive and the girls are brave. Describing how workers have their own tough lives at home, having to walk through crime-ridden areas to get to work, Pam commends how committed they are to these girls. “Women are the backbone of society. Women can run things in amazing ways and have the capacity to notice simple details. We have the capacity to hold people together in relationships. So these women are acting as important role models for the girls in our shelter.”
So how is the shelter currently coping under COVID-19? Finding employment for the girls is a big challenge under normal circumstances, as is surviving financially as a shelter. Pam says she is not sure what is going to happen with COVID-19 and the rising unemployment rate in South Africa, but she anticipates that more children will end up on the streets as a result, and they will also need more support. If the shelter’s door had to close, there would be limited options for the children. If the shelters closed, their residents could end up back on the streets or in toxic home situations, especially as the COVID-19 situation threatens to overwhelm other existing shelters.
Pam’s advice to other shelters trying to learn how to adapt to taking in children? Individualize the general program for each child. In doing, “You must not infantilize children and take away the skills that they have got. They have to learn to be independent and learn age appropriate responsibilities. Basically you must empower these girl children so that when they grow up they will know what to do and how to live independently. So don’t do everything for them! At Ons Plek the children do all the cooking, shopping and cleaning, under our supervision and in age appropriate ways. Each girl has a rotating duty and learns responsibility, and in that way is empowered while still having time to be a child.”
Pam ended her interview on an important note, reminding readers that children who have nothing are still valuable. “You may not be able to make them into university graduates or even make them finish school, but if you can change their lives, just one tiny bit so that they can live easier, relate better to other people and have more respect for themselves, you will make an enormous difference.”
This piece was written for BCCIC by Dr. Zosa De Sas Kropiwnicki–Gruber, BCCIC Policy Director and Gender Specialist. Editing and assistance by Rowen Siemens.