Operation Bobbi Bear has been working near Amanzimtoti on the Natal South Coast to break the silence surrounding the sexual abuse of children. You cannot shut up anymore. You need to report immediately if you don't want to die, is what director Jackie Branfield frankly tells children.
She often gives more than 20 talks a month on sexual abuse and its consequences in schools and other venues throughout the province. According to the South African Police Service Crime Information Analysis Centre, around 680 cases of child abuse were reported in the province between April 2003 and March 2004, representing a 31 percent increase compared to the same period last year.
Branfield's messages are direct, destroying the myth of unknown perpetrators lying in wait behind the bushes. It's your father, grandfather, neighbour, brother or friend, she warns the children. According to Branfield, the average age of children who are raped in southern KwaZulu-Natal ranges between four and six years.
She uses a number of specially designed dolls to teach children about how the HI-virus enters the body and give them a broad biological understanding of what the virus does to their bodies. Apart from raising awareness, the organisation assists sexual abuse survivors at the point of rescue until the court hearing.
Sexual assault survivors need to take post-exposure prophylaxis within 72 hours to reduce the risk of HIV infection. But three days can be a very short time for a sexually abused child who has to tell an adult about the crime, report the case to the police and undergo medical examination - all before gaining access to the anti-AIDS drugs.
Time can run out quickly when waiting times in local police stations and district surgeons can easily add up to one or two working days, and receiving antiretrovirals (ARVs) is crucial in a province with an
estimated HIV prevalence rate of 33 percent, compared to the national average of 25 percent.
To get a prescription for the life-saving drugs, a sexually abused child has to follow a specified procedure and wait an average of five hours at the police station before someone is available. Then the child will have to wait an average of seven hours for a medical examination by the district surgeon.
Both police and district surgeons would like to reduce the waiting time, but a district surgeon, for example, might see 25 children a day, explained Operation Bobbi Bear legal advisor and
administration manager Zina Anastasiou.
This is where Operation Bobbi Bear comes into play. The NGO's child safety officers hand the abused children teddy bears to demonstrate abuse, and assist between 20 and 30 new cases every month. Some victims simply take the marker and slam it between the bear's legs again and again, said Anastasiou. Others place band-aids on body parts that have been hurt, while older children tend to write what has been done to them on the bear some children also stick band-aids over
the bear's mouth if oral sex has taken place, Anastasiou told PlusNews.
We get the child's side of the story through counselling and its demonstration on the bear instead of interrogation, she explained. Without Bobbi Bear, a child would have to tell a police officer (often male) how they were abused, but a lack of biological terminology for body parts and sexual acts often means they would have to demonstrate the mistreatment on their own body.
This amounts to secondary abuse, said Anastasiou. After the session the Bobbi Bear will be taken to the police station as evidence, to determine as quickly as possible whether the child needs ARVs. At the police station the abused child is given a 'rape bag' containing refreshments they can use while waiting at the police station and hospital, a fresh pair of underpants, a pair of gloves, wet wipes and a sanitary pad.
There is also a paper bag to keep soiled panties that might contain the perpetrator's DNA. The police often store this evidence in plastic bags without realising that heat and vacuum may destroy the DNA, Branfield said.
Operation Bobbi Bear also hands out overnight bags to children abused by a person in their household, as they often stay with emergency foster parents until the perpetrator has been arrested, Anastasiou explained. If the rapist is the breadwinner, the mother is, unfortunately, very likely to ask the child rather than the perpetrator to leave the house, as the perpetrator is the one paying for rent, food and other expenses of the mother and her other children, she added.
After abuse has been reported, Operation Bobbi Bear's Child Safety Officers prepare the victims for the court case. So far, the organisation has trained nine Child Safety Officers, who operate in the entire South Coast region and have a good knowledge of HIV/AIDS, abuse, legal issues and counselling. The NGO is now lobbying for better laws for children and free access to ARVs in hospitals to prevent mother-to-child transmission. (Source: IRIN, 27 September 2004)