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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 82  NOVEMBER 2005 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

street children

Who cares? Sexual abuse and street children in South Africa

Annette Cockburn

This paper will deal briefly with a number of categories of sexual offences against street children. At the same time it will explore the children’s responses to abuse. These responses, reflect, I think, the central and pervasive paradox which characterises the research in the field: of extreme developmental risk and vulnerability on one hand, whilst on the other hand there is equal evidence of resourcefulness, adaptability and coping.

Survival sex
The first category is that of survival sex. I have, for a long time now, refused to give interviews to the media on child prostitution. Firstly, because I believe that children under the age of 16 are victims of adult sexual exploitation, and not prostitutes, and secondly because media coverage of this kind is extremely counter productive. Increasing numbers of middle aged men, known by the children as ‘bunnies’ (the women are called ‘sugar mummies’), cruise in cars around the Shelters. Sexual exploitation and abuse by members of the public is common.

The following description of one such encounter by a Hillbrow street child is typical of the way street kids relate their experiences:

"The quickest way of getting fast money is with chip-chop (prostitution). But people can hurt you. It’s best to go home with ladies who have no menfolk because they are lonely and they pay well. Not all the boys do chip-chop Some of them run away if they see people they think are looking for sex. Especially the smaller boys are scared. The usual thing is for them to let you shower, give you some food, then show you a movie and ask you to do the same things. Then you might get anything from ten rand to fifty rand" (Swart, 1990; translated from the Zulu).

 Charges, in cases of sexual exploitation by adults, are difficult to lay, largely due to lack of information and the child’s fear that he will get into trouble. When we have pressed charges, the elements of consent and payment have mitigated in favour of the offender. In our campaign to have the loitering laws repealed, I have often been told by police officers that the children loiter with intent. "intent to what!" "intent to solicit." It seems absolutely absurd to me that they are in default of the law, while the adult who picks them up, is not arrested unless the child or the institution charges him/her with child abuse.

Survival sex on the part of the children should perhaps be seen in a context of power and domination issues – in which rich exploit poor, males exploit females, whites exploit other ethnic groups and adults exploit children.

Street children are particularly vulnerable to adult exploitation, and sell cheap sex to customers who are not primarily paedophiles, but who seek sexual gratification of any kind for the lowest possible outlay. In spite of their being so vulnerable, street children are not helpless, and they are not usually coerced. It is generally considered that helplessness and coercion run counter to adaptive behaviour. Yet, street children are resourceful and innovative problem solvers, highly adaptive and manipulative of adults. I suggest that they are not as traumatised by these experiences as might generally be held. Conversely these young victims may be blunted on an emotional, feeling level and tragically desensitised by previous experiences of abuse. We know very little about the children’s backgrounds and, as Richter and Swart note: "The majority of children in South Africa are no strangers to abuse – particularly those who have been disadvantaged by apartheid." (Swart, 1990)

Abuse in families
Intra-familial sexual abuse is another matter entirely — children are usually reluctant to disclose such experiences, which are part of a history of multiple abuse, and relegated to a painful past which the child tries to put behind him when he enters the Shelter, and begins the process of restructuring his shattered life.

Institutional abuse
The other two categories of sexual offences against street children, are those which might occur within the Shelter or Institution in which the child has sought safety and protection. These are sexual abuse of the child by a staff member or volunteer, or by another child. For such cases, policies and protocols are usually in place, and the legal position is clearer.

I need to refer here to the many incidents reported in the press during the last year in the Western Cape, and while there is no doubt that offenders need to be dealt with in terms of the law, child care workers feel insecure and vulnerable and very much at the mercy of children, who in many cases are damaged and disturbed.

Tight, clear protocols help to support and protect workers, for it would be a sad day when child care workers could no longer hug a child, for fear of a charge of molestation.

Adult viewpoints
Anne Levett (1989) argues that assumptions about traumatic effects of sexual abuse are bound up with current discourses — firstly about childhood, and secondly about sexual behaviour and the sexual development of children. Factors like the degree of violence and coercion, and the kind of relationship before and after the abuse experiences, are important, and yet it is not unusual to find the term "child sexual abuse" used for a very broad range of phenomena, and commonly aligned with expectations of wide-ranging traumatic effects.

As in Europe and North America, contemporary western concepts of childhood (based in a narrow range of middle-class experience) are powerful and pervasive in South Africa. These ideas are central in daily talk about children, among professional health care workers and in the media, and are normative and prescriptive in the sense that they suggest: "This is how children should be!"

How the children think
I mention in passing, that educational programmes on sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS have been singularly unsuccessful with street children. Their high impulsivity and need for immediate gratification make remote dangers too insubstantial to worry about. Attitudes may vary from "if it’s your day, it’s your day!" to "Anyway I’m much more likely to die with a knife in my back". This is probably true. Once again, is it our middle class notions of what is right and proper that inform our practice?

Without a background of the "local knowledge" of children — both girls and boys — In a range of social contexts, it is difficult to say anything about the meaning of what we call "childhood sexual abuse" for the street child. Until we know a great deal more of social behaviour in the cognitive schemas of children, much of what is written about the damaging effects of childhood sexual abuse is based in our adult projections.

In whose mind is there damage — in the child’s or in our own? Without a doubt South African street children are victims of many forms of abuse, including societal or structural abuse, but we who work with these children have a deep sense that they are true survivors, and bring to abusive experiences the well-developed resilience which has carried them through their lives.

"Our belief in the human spirit transcends all reason and flies beyond the frail fingers of our knowledge". 

Selected Bibliography

Cockburn, A. Street Children. An Overview of the Nature, Extent, Characteristics and Dynamics of the problem. A paper commissioned by The National Council for Child and Family Welfare read at Pretoria. September (1990)

Cockburn, A. Street Children, Survivors of Multiple Abuse. A paper read at the 9th International Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. Chicago, September (1992).

Collings, S. The Traumatic Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Syndrome in Search of a Theory. SASPCAN conference proceedings. "Children for Africa" (1994)

Dawes, A. The effects of political violence on children: A Consideration of South African and related Studies. International Journal of Psychology. 25 (1990) 13-31 North Holland.

Giles, C. Violence in Group Care, in People and Violence in South Africa. Ed. McKendrick and Hoffman (1990)

Levett, A. Child Sexual Abuse: The damaging effects of popular ideas. The Child Care Worker Vol. 7 No. 6 June 1989.

Levett, A. Psychological trauma and childhood. Psychology in Society, 1989, 12, 19-32

Richter, LM. Descriptions of Self, Family and Society given by Street Children in Johannesburg. Paper presented at the 7th National Congress of the South African Association for the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines. Cape Town. March (1989).

Snell. C. Help seeking behaviour among young Street Males. SASPCAN conference proceedings (1994)

Swart, J. Malundet: The Street Children of Hillbrow. Witwatersrand University Press (1990)

Vardhan, V. Factors associated with Sexually Inappropriate Behaviour amongst Adolescent Males SAPCAN (1994)