An enterprising NGO is fighting the good fight against sexual abuse using an unlikely tool: the seemingly innocuous teddy bear.
A parent’s worst nightmare is that of their children becoming the victims of a sexual crime. Molestation and rape at a young age can dramatically affect a child’s development.
From self blame or self-mutilation to the dreaded possibility of following in the footsteps of his or her assailant, the loss of innocence at the hands of someone of more sound mind than the victim is enough to drive any war-boiled father, like myself, mad.
The facts are frightening
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, forms of sexual abuse include asking or pressuring a child to engage in sexual activities (regardless of the outcome), indecent exposure to a child with intent to gratify your own sexual desires, to intimidate or groom the child, or using a child to produce child pornography.
What runs second to this is that only an estimated 14 percent of perpetrators are convicted. Leaning on shocking information handed down by the United Nations Office on Crimes and Drugs, our beautiful country was ranked first for rapes per capita.
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With all the negativity it should be said that this dark cloud has a silver lining. The ray of hope comes in the form of an NGO based in Kwa-Zulu Natal named Operation Bobbi Bear. These relief givers work on behalf of children who have been sexually abused, to minimise the risk of HIV infection at the point of rescue.
Forging a new path
The founder of Operation Bobbi Bear (OBB), Jackie Branfield, first took action against sexual crimes in 1992. In a moment of frustration, she demanded to see the reporting docket of an alleged statement made by a four-year-old girl.
The police officer handling the case replied that the child did not make the statement, since she was too traumatised to speak and did not know the right words to say, and that the officer, in frustration had written the statement himself, which was “I was raped” – a statement completely insufficient for a court of law.
It was clear to Jackie at that moment that how an abused child and a police officer talk to each other can determine the extent to which justice is done.
The problem was largely one of communication. Furthermore, if these barriers were to be overcome, this was often at the expense of the child’s wellbeing.
Jackie’s challenge was to ensure accurate information was exchanged and clear legal evidence noted without in any way compromising on the care and support for the victim. Jackie began a search for toys which would help with this communication and care, and through trial and error, came up with Bobbi Bear’s design.
Bobbi Bear’s court-approved approach, which uses a teddy bear for children to describe their abuse, has helped thousands of children tell their stories in court. This point of rescue is put in contact immediately with victims by the police.
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Operation Bobbi Bear has a number of victim-friendly facilities at a number of police stations across Natal, in which they do the initial trauma counselling with the child before taking him or her to the district surgeon for further inspection. During this painstaking process, the appropriately trained volunteers (volunteers make up the bulk of Bobbi Bear staff) make sure that the child is treated properly, that proper statements are taken and that no secondary abuse takes place.
From the police station the victim is escorted to the district surgeon where the post-exposure prophylaxis is administered, if there was any penetration. According to one of Bobbi Bear’s permanent volunteers, Bradley Downs, the hospital exercise alone can take up to seven hours at a government hospital.
“If a child has been raped by her father or someone who lives close to her,” Bradley says, “they will hopefully be arrested or the child will be taken into our care for a short time, until we can find a suitable place for them to stay. We have kids who have been with us for years, though.”
Oasis of support
Operation Bobbi Bear does not stop its proceedings after the victim has been identified and counselled, but also involves itself in witness protection and court preparation. Preparing a child to testify in court is one of the most gruelling tasks, as the child has already gone through so much.
To make it easier for a victim to recount, in detail, what happened, Bobbi the Teddy Bear is implemented into the procedure. Props in the form of permanent markers, elastic bands and medical tape are introduced.
A Band-Aid plastered across the mouth of the bear can mean that the child was told to keep quiet or even gagged, and an elastic band binding the toy’s arms together is a way for the child to demonstrate that the culprit tied his victim’s arms together. Such a demonstration holds up in a court of law and can be efficient in bringing perpetrators to justice.
There are other facets to the organisation, such as Friday night support groups for women, mostly living with HIV. On weekends OBB host arts, crafts & leadership events for more than 100 children who are all vulnerable to abuse. Alongside these support groups and workshops, the organisation runs a feeding scheme. During the week they receive donations from the public, which is then used to fuel these activities.
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“We have a school awareness programme that ties into the core of our work. We go into the surrounding schools and talk about sexual abuse, HIV, drugs, human trafficking and so on,” says Bradley. This in return strengthens OBB’s relationship with the students, teachers and the community so that when there is an issue they know who to contact.
These programmes are so rewarding that after a single talk at a school one of Bradley’s colleagues received 42 cases. Some of the sadder cases he has been involved in were when a girl was repeatedly stabbed and raped by a family member.
After speaking to Bradley about her account, he mentioned that the scars the little girl has are her victory badges, showing she has overcome something that seems nearly impossible to survive.
Never going to stop
Every day is a battle for the brave men and women of Operation Bobbi Bear. Often police statements have been taken down wrong or dockets have gone missing.
But the NGO has one or two tricks up its sleeve that seem to work well with the powers that be: the media. When a clinic or police station or MEC does not do what it’s supposed to, the newspapers are contacted.
This maverick course of action has saved many a child’s life. What started out in a fit of frustration 21 years ago has turned into an Operation that has saved many little lives and, in due time, will raise the conviction for sexual offenders from that shameful 14 percent.