What are the aims of the Ubuntu Care project?
Sofia Hedjam: "It’s an awareness-raising program. Our moderators visit schools to warn and inform children on the risk of sexual violence. The sessions are also targeted at teachers.
All of our activities are designed to be fun. For example, we ask the children to take it in turns to place “smileys” - red or green stickers - on a poster of the human body. And then they explain why an adult does not have the right to touch this or that part of their body... And then we discuss it together.
The children have also been asked to perform in short plays about sexual aggression in front of adults as part of a street theater project. A debate was organized at the end of the play and the public was asked to join in. The initiative raised public awareness and the children played an active role in it.
Last year, we made a film, Through our Eyes in which children were asked to list the causes of sexual violence, and then gave them free rein to act them out.
The Ubuntu Care program meets a real need. Sexual violence against children is fairly widespread in this region of Africa and it’s a taboo subject."
Why are children with disabilities particularly vulnerable?
"On the one hand, children with disabilities are often left at home while their parents go out to work and their brothers and sisters are at school. They’re more vulnerable because they are isolated and excluded from the rest of their community. Orphans are dependent on relatives or friends who might assault them.
On the other hand, there are lots of superstitions about disability, some of them terrifying, like the idea that if you have sex with someone with disabilities it will cure you of AIDS."
Do you work with families?
"Yes, we teach parents of children with disabilities about the risk of sexual violence. If a child has been molested or raped, we help parents get legal, psychological and medical help.
We also run information campaigns on disability for local communities. We try to challenge misconceptions and superstitions, and to help people realize how serious sexual violence against children is: a lot of cases are covered up or settled out of court by the head of the village and the families concerned, which is illegal because rape is still a crime."
Is the project targeted at the public authorities too?
"Yes, our awareness-raising activities are also targeted at public services - legal, social, psychosocial, medical and educational - in charge of child protection. We also coordinate the work of the magistrates who process complaints and the medical experts who examine the child victims. They didn’t communicate with each other before, which could seriously delay the investigation. When we identify a child victim of violence, we also refer them to what we call an “intervention group”, which brings together relevant representatives of the police, and the judicial, education and medical systems to examine and case-manage the victims."
What progress have you made?
"Children are much more aware of sexual violence now: some 30,000 children in all three countries took part in our activities and were made aware of this violence. They’re often more aware than the adults. The project has also enabled some 600 child victims of sexual violence to be identified and provided with care and treatment."
Is it difficult to talk with children about something that’s so taboo?
"No, not at all. They’re often well aware of the problem already. Whether they’ve been a victim of violence themselves or they’ve heard about it, a child is always the first to witness the trauma caused by sexual violence. Children come up with lots of ideas of how to raise the awareness of the general public. The project has helped children talk more freely about a problem that’s normally hidden away."
1. Ubuntu is a Bantu word for humanity, generosity and community. Bantu languages are spoken in southern and eastern Africa.