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Beyond ‘shattered little pieces’: Empowering girl children living on the streets in Cape Town, South Africa

An interview with Pam Jackson, Ons Plek, Executive Director of Ons Plek

In honour of International Day of the Girl Child, Dr. Zosa Gruber, Policy Director and Gender Specialist at BCCIC, sat down with Pam Jackson, Executive Director of the Ons Plek Projects, to discuss Ons Plek’s meaningful work with girls on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa. 

When Ons Plek opened 33 years ago, as Pam described it, shelters only existed for boys; “nobody really seemed to know that there were girls on the streets.” Upon opening its doors, Ons Plek became the first South African shelter for girls.

In addition to offering a safe place to stay for these girls, Ons Plek offers counselling and education. They even set up their own school, finding that the children they worked with often couldn’t keep up with their schooling otherwise. The school isn’t only set up to ensure the children do not fall behind in their lessons, but it also gives them a sense of discipline and routine.

 

Pam describes the many services the shelter provides, varying from tracking down families and working with parents to see if they are able to take the child back to running programs on sexual and reproductive health. They also run everyday programs with the girls to build their independence, such as teaching them about budgeting, shopping and nutrition. “We are also teaching them not to become dependent on us” says Pam,  “We teach them how to use public transport; they make their own way to school everyday so that one day they will be able to go to work on their own. The responsibilities we give them are age-appropriate, so when making dinner for example, the girls wash or peel the potatoes depending on their ages. We are also teaching them how to talk to people, how to be polite and employable one day.”

Pam describes this work as empowering. She explains that a lot of the work Ons Plek does involves teaching personal problem-solving skills. “We are hoping that they will take those skills with them into their own families and into their communities.”  Enhancing leadership skills is foundational to this work, “Some of them are, of course, natural leaders. And so we are having discussions with them all the time about the way they are leading. Do you want to lead by fear or do you want to lead by getting people on your side? What is an effective leadership style?”

The length of stay for residents of this shelter varies. In some cases it is very short, a child running away or getting lost might be returned within a day or two, or as soon as they locate the parent. However, the average length of stay is two weeks, and in many cases girls stay up to six months. When there are children who have been badly raped or neglected, with families who have split apart or who come from other countries, then workers at the shelter might not be able to get them home. Some of those children stay at the shelter for a few years, but the aim is to get them home or into a family environment.

 

Perhaps the most difficult decision the girls have to make is whether to actually return to their families, and if so, how to manage it? Decisions to return might place the girls back into toxic situations. As Pam elaborates, “What temptations will they face back home? Will they be able to withstand pressure from other teenagers? Will they end up exactly in the same place on the streets? These are all very difficult decisions for them to make. And on the streets, the girls have to make very difficult decisions – should they join gangs where they might get food and protection but also be raped? Should they find long term sugar daddies or get involved in abusive, transactional or exploitative relationships? It’s a dangerous life for them, and many have to make difficult decisions to survive.”

These are all ways in which running a shelter for girls is different from running shelters for boys. “Some boy’s shelters tend to give them a lot more freedom, but we have rules about what time the girls should be home, what duties they have to do and the schoolwork they have to complete” says Pam, “Whereas the boys who go to school may be allowed to spend the whole afternoon and evening running around the streets, continuing their begging habits.” She concedes that, of course boys on the street experience sexual abuse and violence, but that extra protections at the Ons Plek girls’ shelter are in place because girls are even more easily prayed upon by men.

Pam describes this girl shelter as a safe space, where the residents do not have to worry about being harassed or bullied by men and boys. Not living with men and boys has made a huge impact on their feelings of safety, as quite a few of the girls have been raped or sexually abused in the past.

When asked whether she considered the girls in these shelters victims, Pam acknowledged the difficulty in answering that question. She concedes that some of them have been victims of horrible treatment, but that the shelter exists to show these girls their worth despite what has happened to them. She says, “We are here to help them see themselves not as shattered little pieces but as strong enough to overcome the problems they are facing. It’s a lot of hard work but we have seen it happen with many children.” To illustrate this, Pam recalled one girl at the shelter whose mother left her. The young girl would hold on to the picture of her mother, stroking it constantly and crying over it. The workers had to laminate the picture to prevent it from falling apart, and everyday a staff member would sit with her. And then one day she came out of it and started slowly putting her life together and going to school. Pam adds, “I think if you can just wait long enough and provide the right kind of support and counselling, you can help them through this journey.”

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.”

Please visit Ons Plek’s website  (http://www.onsplek.org.za/), follow them on Facebook or contact Pam directly by email (pam.reflect@gmail.com) if you would like to know more. 

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.