The Teddy Bear Foundation has seen 57 cases of child abuse since the lockdown began.

Dr Shaheda Omar is the clinical director and therapeutic manager at the Teddy Bear Foundation based in Parktown, Johannesburg. The Teddy Bear Foundation provides services for abused children which include counselling, psychological testing, forensic medical examinations and assessments, a court preparation programme, and a diversion programme for youth sexual offenders.

Dr Omar is responsible for overseeing all clinical services and assessments at the clinic. She is also involved in the development of training material and protocols at the clinic, as well as training and management of therapeutic staff.

The Teddy Bear Clinic has remained open during the lockdown period as an essential service for victims of abuse. This is because the majority of children are unable to access digital platforms for therapy and also due to the growing number of abuse cases that have been reported to them. This has required that skeleton staff be present at their offices, one of the most important being Dr Omar.

During the lockdown, cases have either been reported by family members, friends or significant others directly to the clinic by coming in, phoning in or referrals by the police. Counselling and court preparations are being done either telephonically or online with emergency cases being seen at the clinic. Forensic assessments are also being conducted online where possible or else with social distancing and protective gear.

As told to Zainab Patel

We saw the lockdown coming. We realised that it was imminent so we had already started planning before the actual announcement of the lockdown by the president. We had already put things into place in terms of interventions and the way forward and how we were going to manage staff remotely from the physical space of the offices that they usually work in.

The general sentiment, and I think more so by government, was that with the lockdown, children and women will be safer because there will be nobody outside walking around. Also with the military presence and law enforcement being more visible outside, that this would certainly deter people from violating against women and children.

However, we have certainly seen a different response, something that we have anticipated as civil society that people living in impoverished conditions, or overcrowding and where there’s unemployment, if we’re looking at our informal traders who suddenly had to stop working and utilising that income to put food on the table.

So, the lack of food, the lack of security and the anxieties around the fact that people are not aware of what’s going to happen next, in terms of food, in terms of shelter, in terms of survival. All of that certainly contributed to the incidences of violence against women and children.

The lockdown is just not a lockdown of keeping people safe from the transmission and mutation of the virus, it’s locked people out from all other sources of support, it’s trapped them where they have no place to go. They cannot reach out and we find that there is an increase in domestic violence and the incidents of child abuse where children have been subjected to emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and have been witnesses of domestic violence. In some cases, they’ve even witnessed attempted murders of their biological mother.

The total as we speak, are 57 cases and we’ve already received two suicides and one attempted suicide. And, of course, we continue to see rape victims, victims of sexual assault, victims of physical abuse and victims that have witnessed domestic violence.

This is unprecedented, uncharted waters that nobody has travelled before. If we look at any holiday period, we don’t usually see these numbers. Where home is supposed to be a place of hope and safety and security, home is actually a danger zone.

Previously when parents get frustrated, irritated or tired with their children, the immediate natural response is “Go and play outside” or the children will have their friends to distract them to be engaged and occupied. Whereas now with the lockdown, they cannot do that. It’s most restrictive and least empowering and I think that is something that we need to take cognisance of.

As a result, if you look at families, many are living in overcrowded situations. Now suddenly, 24/7, they’re huddled together, the frustrations of not knowing where they’re going to get their next meal. And then, also, being in close proximity with each other can be quite irksome and burdensome.

For people who already have impulse control issues or aggressive tendencies, it’s more likely to flare up during this period. And, who is most likely to suffer? Your most vulnerable population groups which would be children and women because they are soft targets. And this is what we are seeing playing itself out now.

With regards to the suicides, we’re talking about children under the age of 16, very young. One needs to factor in pre-existing conditions like depression, generalised anxiety, other mental health disorders, bipolar disorder. I think those are things that we have to consider as risk factors.

So under the lockdown period you’re going to find that children feel trapped, locked in, and feel like everything is closing in on them. They feel there’s no exit, there’s no escape, there’s no way out and obviously the only way to exit this whole situation is to take their life. So it’s in sheer desperation where they resort to such drastic measures, because if you think of a 10-year-old, the case we went to see in Evaton yesterday, the 10-year-old had hung himself.

People are also afraid to venture out onto the streets, to seek the help of a police officer because they feel that they will be, and there have been cases reported, where they’ve been asked to turn back and go into their homes. So people are afraid to actually reach out and say, “We need to be rescued” or “We are experiencing violence”. Their responses have been quite negative and have been, I think, a deterrent for people coming forward or seeking help and has resulted in secondary victimisation and traumatisation of children and women.

Childline – 0800 055 555 (24 hours)
SAPS – 10111 (24 hours)
Teddy Bear Clinic – 011 484 4554 ( Office hours only)

FEATURED IMAGE: Every child that comes to the Teddy Bear Foundation receives a teddy bear to comfort, support and help them through the process of healing. Photo: Zainab Patel