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Breaking the Cycle

“When it came..  it was too good to be true, honestly. Having someone to listen to me, to all my problems. Do I really even matter? Do people even care who I am? I’m just from a village, sometimes we don’t even have electricity, we don’t have running water, so who cares who I am? And then Childline was like, “No, we’ll be here for you”. (Tsakane Onnica Maluleke, Peer Group Trainer, Childline Gauteng)

When Childline reached out to Tsakane with the My Journey programme initiative, poverty and the associated effects and challenges had brought her to the edge. “I think if it wasn’t for the help I got here, I wouldn’t be here, honest to God, because I started having suicidal thoughts. I was just done with life. I was just done!”

This can be difficult for people to understand, but she says, “It’s very hard. Imagine having to go to bed without eating. Those are the realities. Having to see my siblings go to school without shoes. Those are the realities. If you have not been in that same situation, if you have not been to bed two days in a row without eating, if you haven’t had to sacrifice your plate as the older sibling to the young ones so that they can eat, you don’t know the pain.” Other traumas compound these day-to-day struggles: her father’s suicide; the dismissal of her and her mother from the family after her father’s death; the seeming impossibility of finishing her education, and the murder of a friend for a cell phone.

Circumstances like these can lead vulnerable young women and girls into unhealthy relationships in exchange for food, clothing and other support. As Tsakane explains, “Where I live, there are many child-headed households. You can imagine if there’s a child taking care of children, it doesn’t always work out. You’re going to make bad decisions just to make sure that the children are fed – that will make you vulnerable to getting HIV, STIs, being used, being abused. You will stay in an abusive relationship because that person is supporting you. That person is actually your source of financial income. If you don’t have that person, then your family is going to suffer.” So when Childline offered Tsakane support, she felt disbelief and suspicion.

But she decided to embrace what Childline was offering, thinking, “Ah, okay, let’s give this a try. Maybe this is the last straw. Maybe this is the hope I’ve been looking for. Because, you know, when you are battling with your demons, you’re like, okay, fine, do I have anything to lose?” As she engaged with Childline, she realised they didn’t want anything – other than her success.

Childline’s My Journey Programme, which Tsakane participated in, is part of a national programme for adolescents and young people. Implemented by NACOSA and funded by the Global Fund, It provides a comprehensive package of health services – such as HIV testing and PEP- and other services, including economic strengthening and psychosocial support. The programme aims to decrease the prevalence of HIV infections, reduce rates of teenage pregnancies, and combat gender-based violence. Additionally, the program seeks to increase school retention rates and create more economic opportunities for young people.

Tsakane empowering other young people at Childline Gauteng

An integrated approach is critical when supporting young people because socioeconomic challenges can have a domino effect. Unemployment, lack of opportunity, substance abuse, HIV prevalence and mental health difficulties are all interconnected – and especially so for the youth. Most new HIV infections occur among adolescents and young adults, with HIV prevalence among young women over three times greater than men of the same age. Tsakane puts it like this, “The young people in my community are facing challenges like unemployment and substance abuse because you need a way to cope. If it gets too much and you don’t have any way to offload, you will go into substances. And then, if you are intoxicated, you won’t make the right decisions. And then, when you go to the clinics, they will be like, ‘You are too young to be having sex!’ They don’t understand where we are coming from, but you’re trying to get help.”

The opportunity that the My Journey Programme is offering young people means the world to them. The joy, hope and enthusiasm at some of the centres is palpable. As Tsakane says, “For so many young women, we need that hope. We need someone to hold our hand and tell us that it’s going to be okay.” She goes on to speak about the integrated nature of the programme, “Remember, if they only gave us classes and then they didn’t empower us to start businesses, giving us jobs and help us to go to university and prepare for our studies, I mean we’re going to be in that vulnerable place again.”

Tsakane now works as a peer group trainer in the programme helping to empower and support young people on their journey to a safe, happy and healthy future. She shares her story with others, showing that the programme is not another empty promise. For her it means a lot to offer meaningful hope in the way it was offered to her. Her story is a clear reminder of the depth of the challenges many people in South Africa face, and therefore the depth of the solutions that are needed. She says of her work, “I help people the way the person who came to me helped me. So this is a life changing experience. Imagine if somebody helps you and then you get the opportunity to do the same for other people. They just need something to believe in and they need that something to not disappoint them, because when you have been disappointed a lot in life, I don’t think you’re going to survive another disappointment.”