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Empowering communities to protect children
16 October 2006

Through volunteers help, a project in South Africa's coastal Western Cape Province is trying to empower communities to protect their children from violence and substance abuse.

Children aged between five and nine years in the wine-growing region of the Western Cape have the world's highest incidence of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the group of physical and mental defects caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

According to the US-based National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 40 out of every 1,000 children in the province have a severe form of the syndrome; by comparison, surveys in the USA indicate a rate of 1 or 2 per 1,000 births.

The province has also seen rapid growth in methamphetamine use, a highly addictive illegal drug commonly known as 'tik'. But a unique cooperative project between local officials and social workers, "Eye on a Child", is trying to make a difference.

The initiative is being sponsored by Helderberg Child Welfare, a small nongovernmental organisation (NGO) serving the 70,000 residents in the mostly impoverished townships of Macassar, Sir Lowry's Pass and Firgrove, 70km to 80km east of the provincial capital, Cape Town.

Volunteers are "sworn in" by the local magistrate and granted certain rights to intervene in cases where a child is perceived at risk. Now in its fourth year, the project is expanding and may become a model for community mobilisation.

Last week, 16 members of the Macassar community donned academic gowns and received certificates giving them official status as volunteers. Each had received about 30 hours of HIV/AIDS education, training in parenting skills and their role in terms of the law, and how to handle family violence, before passing a test conducted by the local court.

Among the graduating volunteers was Mariana Samson, mother of one and a Macassar resident who said she was fed up with children roaming the streets. "I saw a deep need. I saw a lot of children were at home during school time, and I saw youngsters from the age of six smoking cigarettes, using alcohol and using drugs," said Samson.

"Sometimes, they are sitting with their parents, having beers, and when you speak to the parents, they say, 'Oh, it's fine, we're just having a good time'. Afterwards, when I explain to them the danger, usually the parents get angry because they feel that no one has the right to teach them how to raise their children."

Family violence, substance abuse and parental neglect occur around the world, but in South Africa they have become commonplace in many communities. Unemployment tops 40 percent, and the abuse of alcohol and tik can be seen in all generations, while HIV/AIDS continues to take a toll on family structures - more than one in five adults are estimated to be HIV positive, and AIDS-affected children sometimes struggle to survive without caregivers.

Social workers play a vital role in South African communities, but are often spread thin. According to Heather Philander, manager of Helderberg Child Welfare, based in the neighbouring town of Somerset West, there is only one social worker for every 7,000 residents in communities such as Macassar. The need for additional eyes and ears is particularly acute after hours.

"Social workers are on the job from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but there is a lot of abuse on the weekends and at night, when social workers aren't there," Philander told IRIN/PlusNews. Police work hand in hand with the volunteers and social workers to respond to reports of abuse.

Only social workers and police are authorised to remove a child from danger, but Cape Town Child Welfare discovered in 1997 that the National Child Care Act made provision for an "authorised person" to remove a child at risk and asked Burton Slabbert, head magistrate the Somserset West district court, whether they could train volunteers to act as "authorised persons" under their supervision.

"It [Eye on a Child] empowers people at the level of their community," Slabbert said. "From the state level, the programme provides resources to monitor and eliminate child abuse, and from a general perspective it's a monitoring system, like putting a camera in the middle of a community. There's 24-hour guardianship taking place." So far, the project has been "a model operation".

In the crowded neighbourhood of Sir Lowry's Pass, volunteer Helena Olifant offered her modest home as a safe house after she saw "a lot of children who needed loving care". She and her husband now foster three children between the ages of seven years and four months.

"Training from the Eye on a Child project taught me how to discipline, and how to stay calm and handle conflict," Olifant said. "Now others are learning from us as role models. We are setting an example and we can see the difference."

Sustainability remains a challenge

Eye on a Child has been received enthusiastically by community leaders, but Philander said the annual budget of US$225,000 was only partially subsidised by government and grants from the national lottery.

It costs US$1,300 to organise and run the 10-module training course every year, with another $250 per month for reimbursing volunteers for transport costs and provide ongoing training.

"Abuse is a social issue ... social workers won't be able to tackle child abuse on their own. They need the community and parents to tackle it, too," she said. Community-based projects such as Eye on a Child were the only hope for systemic change to prevent child abuse in South Africa.

For some volunteers, the authority to intervene on behalf of a child at risk is its own reward. "This project gave me a lot more boldness," Samson said. "I'm not shy to speak out any more, or to come forward with a problem ... so that children can see there is love."