A brief, brutal existence

A brief, brutal existence

    May 29 2008 at 01:53PM

By Vivian Attwood

Street children’s activist Tom Hewitt has compiled a terrible list of names. Whenever he looks at it he is overcome by memories of special young women – most still girls – whose lives ended prematurely on the streets of Durban.

He knew each girl well, the circumstances that had brought her to the city, her idiosyncrasies, strengths and fears.

Remembering Sarafina, Yoniswa, Nelly, Samke and many others strengthens his commitment to reintegrating Durban’s street children into caring communities.

Although street life is brutal for all those forced to endure it, girls are the most vulnerable, said Hewitt.

He questioned whether the word "vulnerable" is far-reaching enough to encompass their condition.

"To be vulnerable means to be open to emotional or physical danger, or to be exposed to an attack or possible damage.

"What terms are relevant to the street child experience if this ‘possibility’ is realised and realised often, even perpetually? Street children in Durban, particularly the girls, often live in a state of affliction rather than vulnerability."

Driving through a residential area of Durban recently, Hewitt noticed three street girls with whom he has a longstanding friendship through the Umthombo Foundation.

The children ran up to his car excitedly, and he queried why they were so far from their normal turf.

"We are running from Isaac*. He is raping us. We are afraid," said one of the girls. Isaac is a man in his 20s who has just been released from prison.

When he is drunk he terrorises the street children, beating up the boys and raping the girls.

"When girls who have been living on Durban’s streets, particularly in the Point area, are tested to determine their HIV status, the results are seldom negative," Hewitt said.

"They live in one of the highest possible risk categories for contracting the disease. When you examine their reality it is not hard to see why."

Hearing stories detailing the suffering of girls on our streets, it is difficult to comprehend that they are vilified by mainstream society when they are so helpless to change their fate.

When we cruise past these children windows wound up "just in case" we might more charitably be thinking "there but for the grace of God go I".

Scorn

Accompanying Bulelwa, Hewitt’s wife, on one of her regular visits to a group of street girls near Addington Hospital, I expect them to be as scruffy as the boys, and equally mock-brazen, in an attempt to deflect the scorn they receive from most passers-by. I am wrong on both counts.

Two teenage girls in pretty but threadbare dresses – too thin for the chill wind lancing down the street – lean together, heads bowed.

When they speak of their lives, they glance up only briefly, clearly ashamed of experiences they could not have avoided.

A third, in shorts and a cutaway shirt, clasps and unclasps her boyfriend’s hand as she describes how her baby, born prematurely at Addington Hospital, was taken into foster care.

She is keen to return to her mother’s home in the Eastern Cape, but is determined she won’t leave the streets without her child.

"The foster mother they took my baby to has changed her birth name. That makes me so sad," Phumla* said.

"When I take her little presents, the woman throws them away. Sometimes she chases me away, too. I am afraid she is trying to keep my child for herself."

Umthombo is currently working with social services to make sure Phumla will return to a stable environment, and that her baby will be taken care of.

She has promised to go into rehab to tackle her drinking problem before she starts her new life.

"Zodwa* fled to the streets of Durban because her mother sold her to a stranger for sex. She was nine years old. Two years later, she tested positive for HIV.

"Over the years she has learned to survive through prostitution and the support of fellow group members," Hewitt explained of another street girl.

"She learned to sniff glue very early on to smother fear and physical pain. She lives on a corner near the harbour with the members of her group. Truck drivers stop at night and beckon her and her friends to their vehicles.

"For Zodwa, ‘work’ involves performing sexual acts on truck drivers and local men, letting them penetrate her fragile body. If you ask her about this ‘work’ she is ashamed. She sees herself as the dirty one.

"Sometimes she gets really sick. She rolls herself into a ball under a pile of old clothes and cardboard on the street corner, shutting the world out for days on end. She gets thin. Sleep is an escape. She is bright and informed. She knows exactly what happens when you have full-blown Aids. She waits, just her and her glue bottle."

In the first part of our series on street children, printed on Tuesday last week, Bulelwa spoke movingly about growing up on a waste dump in East London.

She managed to scrounge enough food to survive. Some of her friends were less lucky.

Abusers

"I was misquoted in the media some time ago, and it really exasperated me. I had been speaking to a reporter about my experience as a young girl growing up on the streets, and I’d mentioned the tragedy that reduces some girls in that position to allow abusers access to their bodies in order to keep alive.

"When the report was published, the headline screamed: ‘Former street child prostitute speaks out’.

"It wasn’t that I minded being labeled a former prostitute erroneously. It was the fact he was demonising a certain sector of street children without any idea of what they endure to reduce them to that position, which really infuriated me." In his zeal to secure a scoop for his newspaper, the reporter was buying into the prevailing stereotype that all girls on the street turn to prostitution.

It is true that the majority are sexually exploited in some way, but the label "prostitute" is an unfair one.

Hewitt says: "When a girl arrives on the street it is not long before she attracts interest. Usually it is a boy or young person living on the streets who sees the opportunity for a girlfriend.

"This can mean rape, coerced sex or even fully consensual sex. Often the boy is not sinister but simply acting on normal teenage impulses, albeit in a very abnormal and anarchic environment. This can result in sexual activity almost immediately.

"At other times when a girl arrives on the streets she falls victim to older youths and other men. She is hungry, disorientated and desperate and will do literally anything to survive or feel ‘protected’.

"For many, the first night on the streets is a new chapter in the rape experience of their lives. There is always someone there, ready to prey on new arrivals."

# * Names have been changed

          o This article was originally published on page 10 of Daily News on May 29, 2008

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