From the mouths of heroes

A group of youngsters brought a hush to Parliament’s Old Assembly chamber this week when they spoke about their lives of poverty and hardship and how they think the proposed Children’s Bill could create a happier future for them.

Sixteen-year-old Rebane is up at 5am, feeding the nine-month-old baby and boiling water for the morning porridge. She quietly wakes up three of her siblings aged six, eight and 10, trying her best not to wake the baby as well as the two- and three-year-old.

The youngsters put on their uniforms, which Rebane washed the night before, gulp down their porridge and start the 30-minute walk to school.

At 7.30am Rebane leaves the baby and her two younger siblings with her elderly grandparents and sets off for school, returning at 2pm to repeat the chores of washing, cooking and cleaning for her six brothers and sisters.

This week, for a brief moment, Rebane left her life in Mafikeng behind and came to Cape Town to share her story with parliamentarians, urging them to include the voices of children when considering the Children’s Bill.

“Children should not take care of their siblings. I am taking care of my six siblings, four of which are HIV-positive, and for a long time I was depressed, it was affecting me mentally and my school work,” says Rebane, who is completing grade 11 at her Mafikeng high school.

“I am taking care of my siblings with my old grandmother and that doesn’t mean my mother is not alive. She is very alive, but the problem is that she doesn’t stay at home with us and does not take care of us.

“She is always away and when she comes home she comes home drunk and abuses us emotionally,” the slight teenager told MPs.

“I don’t have enough time to rest and that goes for my two other sisters who come after me — they don’t have time to play like other children and I think that’s abuse. I think that every child has a right to play and a right to rest and I think that must be in the Children’s Bill.”

Rebane also appealed for protection from caregivers who take advantage of the vulnerable environment in which some children find themselves. With a steady voice she told a muted audience about her 10-year-old sister who was recently raped by her 65-year-old grandfather.

“My mother doesn’t know because she is always drunk.”

Rebane is a member of Dikwankwetla, a group of South African children that made a submission to Parliament’s portfolio committee on social development as part of the public hearings on the much-awaited Children’s Bill.

The Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town last year started working with organisations from the Western Cape, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and North West to establish a children’s working group on HIV/Aids.

Twelve children between the ages of 12 and 17 — who were either infected or affected by HIV/Aids — were selected.

They named themselves Dikwankwetla: Children in Action. Dikwankwetla means heroes, and this is how they see themselves in the face of an overwhelming Aids epidemic.

According to Namhla Mniki of the Children’s Institute the main purpose of the group is to engage with the Children’s Bill; formulate children’s opinions on the Bill; draw on their life experiences to make recommendations on the provisions of the Bill; and raise awareness among other children and decision-makers about the Bill.

Rebane says that since joining a support group close to her home she has made peace with her circumstances.

“I was eight when I started washing my siblings’ clothes. By the age of 10 I was cooking for my family. It affected me mentally.”

A teenager from Polokwane in Limpopo, Tebogo, spoke of the urgent need for children to be afforded rights, including the right to say no and the right to protection from abuse.

“My mother sent my 10-year-old sister to buy cooking oil at 6.30pm. On the way she met a man who enquired about the directions to another shop. She agreed to take him there, but instead of going to the shop he took her to the river bank and raped her.

“A suspect was arrested, but he was released the next day.”

Tebogo believes this would not have happened to her sister if her mother did not send her to the shop after dark.

Sihle (16) told parliamentarians about his abusive father who “shouts at us, insults us and chases us away”.

“Please let our parents respect our rights,” he pleaded.

In a clear voice, Nkosingiphile, hardly able to see over the dark wood desk from where he was speaking, told of his family — a sister and a brother.

“I don’t have a mom. I am in grade seven. My hobbies are playing soccer. I am a champion Zulu dancer at school,” he proclaimed.

Nkosingiphile spoke of children’s rights to food, water and shelter.

“A child we know lives with her grandparents in a one-room house. Her mother passed away. She does not have clothes and sometimes they don’t have food. They are sleeping with hunger.

“Many children have to walk many kilometres to get water. It affects your education because you go to fetch water and miss school.

“When I had nowhere to go I went to sleep at my school. Many children do not have shelter, or they live in broken houses with broken windows and roofs.”

Earlier Mathapelo, a self-assured 16-year-old from Mafikeng, disclosed details about her father who took three years to tell his family that he is HIV-positive.

“My mother found out later. I believe that people are scared because they think they will be ignored if they talk about their status. Now HIV is like a friend to us, it’s there. It is a common disease and we should be able to say it.”

On Friday Rebane and the other children return to their various homes and shelters.

“I am going to finish school. I think I will become an accountant, but my real dream is to be a designer,” she says.

“It’s been a good experience for me. I couldn’t tell anybody about my problems, but it was good for me to be able to say it out [loud].”

By July 2003, 990 000 South African children under the age of 18 were maternally orphaned (lost their mother) and 2,13-million children were paternally orphaned.

By 2015, in the absence of any major treatment intervention or behaviour change, roughly 3,05-million children under 18 will be maternally orphaned and 4,51-million will be paternally orphaned; 1,97-million will have lost both their parents.

This amounts to a total of 5,6-million children under the age of 18 having lost one or both parents. An estimated 500 000 children in South Africa currently have a mother who is terminally ill with Aids. (Calculations based on the recent Actuarial Society of Southern Africa model.) — Health-e

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