From therapy to community involvement: Raising awareness of child sexual abuse in a Xhosa school and townshop community

Circle of Concerned Women Theologians

Gender and Education Conference

Stellenbosch 4 May 2012

From therapy to community involvement: Raising awareness of child sexual abuse in a Xhoza school and township community.

Presented by: Elize Morkel & Nobuntu Matholeni

Elize Morkel


I met Nobuntu Matholeni when I was a lecturer in the MTh (Pastoral Counselling) course where she was a student and since then I have been the supervisor of her counselling work. Nobuntu works for PATCH an organization in Somerset West that provides services for children who have been sexually abused. Sexual violence affects more than a third of South African girls before the age of 18 (Jewkes et al, 2009). Nobuntu works predominantly in the African township areas. We witness similar stories of violence and violation over and over again. Sometimes the same child is violated repeatedly by different people. Children are encouraged to report sexual abuse, but often they have to continue living in a dangerous and abusive environment. This led us to ask ourselves: “What are we offering these children?” Sixty minutes of counselling in a safe environment once a week just does not seem adequate – in fact it feels a bit like putting plasters on a seriously ill body.

We started wondering whether individual counselling might not be supporting the belief that the “problem” in sexual abuse resides within the victim, thereby exonerating the community from responsibly for their abuse. If we, as counsellors, do not address the factors in society that keep the problem of sexual abuse of children alive we are, in a way, contributing to the problem. By treating the problem of sexual abuse as confidential matter that stays within the walls of our consultation rooms we support the culture of silence which is regarded as one of main factors that feed the problem – making it easier for perpetrators to offend and harder for victims to speak out and seek help, keeping alive the helplessness, myths, stigma’s and denial surrounding the problem in society. In this way we also leave cultural beliefs, practices and structures that inform and support sexual violence unchallenged.

When children are referred to Nobuntu they had already given testimony to the police and had undergone a forensic assessment. The repeated tellings of the trauma-story often has re-traumatising effects, leaving clients feeling over-whelmed and numbed. They might feel particularly vulnerable as perpetrators might still be around, their disclosure of the abuse might have adversely affected family life, especially if the perpetrator was a family member, and they are blamed and stigmatized. Narrative therapy offers us a theoretical framework and therapeutic practices which enables us to move from the story of trauma to hopeful and empowering possibilities.

Narrative Therapy

Narrative Therapists are aware of the effects of dominant cultural beliefs which assist us in contextualizing the sexual abuse of children:

We hold the view that we live in a society grounded in, and shaped by, patriarchal ideology, and our social, political and cultural analysis occurs within the context of this ideology. Society encourages patriarchal attitudes and actions. Society condones men having power over women and children. This encourages the subordinate status of women in society and in the family. (Esler & Waldegrave 1990: 134)

 Abuse happens in a context where there is an imbalance of power in relationships.

Child sexual abuse consists of a set of subjugating practices or techniques of power perpetrated against the most vulnerable, dependent and impressionable members of our society. It involves the whole spectrum of dominant power/knowledge from brute force and inscription on the body to the most subtle and difficult to detect forms of manipulation. (Linnel & Cora in Joy 1999:149)

By asking detailed questions about the difference in power between the victim and perpetrator and the strategies of abuse of power employed by the perpetrator feelings of guilt, shame and culpability are challenged.

We attend to the short and long term effects of the abuse (Durrant & Kowalski 1990:72). By unpacking and challenging the dominant cultural beliefs that surround sexuality in a patriarchal culture we seek to undermine dangerous and damaging practices and beliefs e.g. “bad girls get raped”; “you were looking for it with the seductive clothes that you were wearing”.

Narrative Therapists work with the understanding that identity is socially constructed in interaction with people. Therefor practices that connects and re-connects clients with communities of care form a very important part of the work, especially when working with sexual abuse which is so often surrounded by secrecy and isolation from others (White 1997; 2007). In an approach to therapy which de-centres the therapist we always work towards finding other people in the lives of our clients who can join us in standing with our client (White 2007).

We know that our efforts to undermine the cultural assumptions and practices responsible for the victim’s experiences of shame, guilt and fear is often a thin voice against everyday experiences from powerful, strong voices in their own communities. We are also painfully aware that the fears which our clients express are often very, very realistic. Nobuntu has often remarked about the loss of a spirit of Ubuntu in the townships. We share a dream that people would join hands to take responsibility for problems affecting the community. In the following Case Study we will illustrate how Narrative Therapy created opportunities for transformative work in the wider community.

Case Study

Nobuntu consulted me about a young Xhosa girl who had been raped for a second time. The girl found it difficult to attend Silukhanyo Primary School, a school for Xhosa learners, because one of the teachers physically resembled the perpetrator of the rape. All Nobuntu’s efforts to assist this girl in drawing a distinction between the perpetrator and the teacher had failed. Her schoolwork was suffering, as was the counselling which took place at school. I asked Nobuntu what she knew about the teacher. I thought it would be helpful to make him into a “real person” rather than focusing on him as a man who looked like the perpetrator. Neither Nobuntu nor the girl knew anything about him. This was clearly problematic. I discussed with Nobuntu whether it would be possible to introduce herself to the teacher and assess his willingness to assist her client in a process of getting to know him as a person. We speculated about how this could be done without further traumatizing her client. We thought that Nobuntu could meet the teacher and, with her client’s permission, inform him of the problem. My proposal that she contact the teacher so as to elicit his support was borne out of the hopeful stance for positive alliances that I hold in my work (Madsen, 2007). She could then ask if he would be willing to participate in a witnessing ceremony (White 2007) where, in the girl’s presence, some of the learners who knew him well could speak about their experience of him as a teacher. The idea for a witnessing ceremony comes from my extensive experience with outsider witness work as described by Michael White (2007). This means that Nobuntu’s client did not have to interact with the teacher directly, but could be a witness to other young girls talking about their experience of him. We carefully discussed the risks involved.

Nobuntu Matholeni

Elize challenged me to step outside of the comfort of my consultation room to risk the voicing of my client’s trauma and fear by speaking to a man that I had never met before. I was concerned that the teacher would be angry and refuse to participate in this rather unusual process. What if he did not have a good relationship with his learners? He could report me and then the school might refuse PATCH future access to provide services to the learners of the school. I decided to take the risk as my client was desperately keen to attend school.

When my client heard about the plan she was fearful about the teacher’s response, but willing to take the risk. She pointed out the male teacher to me. I introduced myself to Mr. Majingo, and discovered that he was the Deputy Principal of the school. Mr. Majingo admitted afterwards his initial shock at hearing about this learner’s fear. He felt insulted and angry, especially as he knows that he is a caring and loving teacher who would never do anything to harm a learner. He managed to calm himself down as he felt sad for the girl who was so traumatized and wanted to help her.

Mr. Majingo acted immediately by explained to his learners about the girl who was afraid of him and that he needed them to tell her about his “other side”. Five girls volunteered to participate in the witnessing ceremony. I introduced my client to the group and explained to the girls what had happened. They responded by sharing moving personal stories about Mr. Majingo’s caring and kind ways. One girl said that Mr Majingo noticed that she did not come to Saturday school because she had nothing to wear except her school uniform. He paid for jeans and a t-shirt which his wife bought for her so that she could go. The girls said that he was like a father to them. Mr. Majingo was so touched by these testimonies of his life as a teacher that he started crying. One of the girls said that she had also been raped. She had not spoken about this before. I noticed how my client’s face changed as she became increasingly engaged in the stories that the other girls were telling. Mr. Majingo responded by sharing the story of his own childhood. He and his five siblings grew up with his mother in a single-roomed hut in the Eastern Cape. He spoke about his dream of becoming a teacher, but, because he had no money he had had to work for a construction firm before he could go to college.

I was deeply moved as I witnessed Mr Majingo’s tears. It was highly significant for gender relations that Mr. Majingo, a Xhosa man, allowed himself to cry in the presence of a woman and his (female) pupils. In his response, Mr. Majingo challenged dominant cultural discourses of masculinity and authority. The girls and I witnessed in him a kind of masculinity that is gentle, vulnerable and caring – a stark contrast to the violence to which some of them had been subjected.

By inviting the children to speak about their experiences of Mr. Majingo, their teacher, the discourses of authoritarianism which are very strong in South African schools, were challenged (Ramphele, 2008). Power relations were turned up-side down! This witnessing ceremony was the highlight of my counselling career so far. I was surprised and touched by the openness of the sharing, the deep emotions this evoked in everyone and the shifts in perceptions and relationships that occurred when this kind of sharing happened (White 2007).

A Narrative Therapy approach challenges Western individualistic self-understandings and acknowledges our interrelatedness – ubuntu – as humans. Tutu (1999) articulates ubuntu as: “I am human because I belong. I participate. I share.” I also felt a strong bond in the group as I was reminded of my own childhood of poverty in the Eastern Cape and realized that we all share this experience of poverty. This common experience of poverty in the group served to strengthen our experience of ubuntu. Western understandings of confidentiality and stigmatization disappeared in the spirit of ubuntu, where everybody took hands and the individual’s pain became everyone’s pain. Both Mr. Majingo and I serve as role models for the girls on how to overcome poverty and hardship and reach personal goals.

After the witnessing ceremony the young client developed a warm relationship with Mr. Majingo. Instead of being someone she feared he now became her ally at school. In addition, she had been joined very strongly by the other girls who shared stories of hardship from their own lives. This ceremony contributed significantly to my client’s progress and happiness. Through taking the risk to voice my client’s sexual trauma, which is so often veiled in silence and secrecy, I made it possible for her to re-connect with her community (Herman, 1992).

Mr. Majingo was so moved by the experience with me and the girls that he told Mr. Mbalula, the school’s principal, about my work. They discussed the obvious need to help children who had experienced sexual violence. I was given an office when the school moved to new premises, whereas in the past I had to consult with children in the car belonging to PATCH.

Mr Mbalula told me that he had come to understand their task at school as more than just teaching children academic work. Teachers can also assist children to learn when they become involved in the problems which children faced outside the school. Mr. Mbalula invited me to address the staff about sexual abuse so as to raise their awareness. He also asked me to address a meeting of the Governing Body of the school who subsequently granted me permission to hold parent meetings about my work. Suddenly I experienced that I was joined by other people who shared my commitment to revive the spirit of ubuntu in the urban townships, to encourage people to look out for one another and to make their streets and neighbourhoods safer. I was introduced by parents to various street committees in the township who network with the purpose of creating a better community for all. When the police heard about these meetings where I addressed people from the community the station commander joined a meeting to learn from me. He then asked to visit PATCH to learn from the staff about how the Police can better support PATCH in their work. At the school staff members and parents report that they feel more empowered to take action when they become aware of incidents of abuse. I was given permission to start a support group for girls who have been sexually abused – my client and the girl who spoke about her experience of rape in the witnessing ceremony formed part of the first group.

Conclusion: (Elize)

We support an approach to counselling and therapy which will voice the suffering of victims of sexual abuse in the bigger community. As counsellors we dare not carry the stories of oppression and abuse with us without taking a stand against the injustices supported by our culture. In this regard we take an activist stance. We agree with Weingarten (2000) that “matters of life and death are too hard, too onerous, too painful to ‘do’ alone.” We have many more stories of how the joining of hands and voices can ripple out in transformative ways (Morkel 2011a & b).


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