Thursday, May 17, 2012

Language in Child Protection: Johanna Kistner, Director Sophiatown Community Psychological Services (Annual report extract)

It’s all a matter of language

South Africa is a land of many languages and Johannesburg is abuzz with the sounds and meanings of dozens of linguistic cultures and histories. Language both constructs and gives meaning to reality and as  such is the most powerful tool given to us for either the making or the breaking of our humanity. Although counsellors, therapists and healers all over the world may use many different media through which to practice their craft, in the end it is language that gives words to the unspeakable; that allows for the articulation and sharing of thoughts, experiences and feelings; and that makes it possible for one human being to reach out to another with compassion and love. Over the past year we have had many occasions to reflect on the language of work, healing, empowerment and social justice and in the process have become very aware of the way in which the institutionalized jargon of both government and civil society can mystify or even negate the horror of suffering, thereby removing the urgency of the need for both compassionate service and radical social transformation. Take a look at these examples:

·      The “UAM” short for Unaccompanied Minor. Who is she? She has many faces, many names, many stories she presents to many service providers as she makes her way across many borders- geographical, social, cultural and economic. She is also one girl, 16 years old, who has crossed the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa many times, slept with truck drivers who have hidden her under their load, raped by the thugs controlling the no-man’s land between the two countries, exchanged shelter and food for further sexual favours, until she found refuge again in a church where she was raped again. She was picked up by the police, sent to the social workers, placed in a shelter, ran away, picked up again, sent back to Zimbabwe to the abusive uncle who has been her guardian since her parents died of AIDS many years ago. She has run away again, crossed the border in the same way, sought help in the same church, was  referred back to the same social workers, was found half-dead at the same railway station, started on ARVs, defaulted, and somewhere, tragically, in the last four months her track has been lost. A UAM- or a child bereft, betrayed, abandoned, abused, forgotten, violated, rejected by service organizations, by the state, by the church, by nations, by humanity? A UAM or a child forced to cross perilous boundaries without the comfort of a guiding hand, a re-assuring voice or a place to belong to at the end of the journey?

·    The “Child Headed Household”. For years we have as a nation tried to negate the massive suffering caused by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of parents and caregivers by creating the notion of the child-headed household, peppered with ideals of family bonding and the amazing resilience of children. Maybe this is true for a few families. But in the experience of this team a child-headed household is no more than the cruel abandonment of children in need of care, guidance, supervision and love. Adults may wax lyrically about the resilience and belonging, but they are not there when it is time to say “happy birthday”, or sign a report card, or attend a parent’s meeting or tug in a bewildered teenager with the promise of a better tomorrow.  A child-headed household? Or a state abdicating its responsibility for the most vulnerable by abandoning them to the myth of self-sufficiency and blood-coded family bonds, making children take on parental responsibilities they are developmentally not capable of, and reframing gross neglect as innovative community care.

There are many more examples: The OVC (Orphan or Vulnerable Child) we have been informed, has recently been re-phrased as MVC (Most Vulnerable Child), presumably so that attention needs to be given only to those living in the most desperate conditions of abuse, neglect and poverty. Already we are seeing help denied to mothers who love their children but are not able to care for them because of displacement, extreme poverty, and lack of documentation, with welfare agencies arguing that these children are not wilfully neglected or abused. If their mothers did  indeed inflict severe abuse on them, maybe they could get re-classified as MVCs and get at least some intervention. The notion of home-based care equally mystifies firstly the very real medical, physical and emotional needs of terminally ill people, while at the same time creating an army equally needy, exploited, poorly paid, ill-equipped and frustrated workers in the same of ubuntu. It is time, we feel, to do justice to the injustice of the suffering of vast numbers of people, by giving it words that scream for radical action.

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