The Covid-19 lockdown has been incredibly hard on South African families, with many losing their incomes and livelihood, and children losing access to feeding schemes and the safety that schools can provide.
Robyn Wolfson Vorster, a child's rights activist, created For the Voiceless to showcase some of the stories that have come from this situation.
Parent24 spoke to her about the powerful image series, and share some of the images below.
Vorster has been writing and speaking about child protection for eight years now, since she and her husband adopted their daughter, Asha.
"One of the things I have noticed is that children’s stories are powerful," she told us, "but their voices are often muted, even when adults are deciding what is in their best interests."
For Child Protection Week 2020, Vorster partnered with a social worker Talia-Jade Magnes and began collecting stories from children of all ages, races and income groups, some in care and some living with family or extended family, to show how they were coping with the coronavirus pandemic, and with lockdown.
"The result was incredible, so poignant and so humbling," Vorster shares. "Some of the stories were extreme, stories of abandonment, abuse, neglect and rape. Many children spoke about hunger and about school, some voiced anxiety, and self-harming or regression. Many shared feelings of anger and depression."
All of them expressed loss and did their best to articulate how they were trying to cope.
For the little ones, Vorster and Magnes used their caregiver’s accounts to create the story, but the older children told them in their own words.
"Most of all, they are so human, and in their vulnerability, they have shared some really universal themes," she says.
"Can’t we all relate to feeling like Kutlwano when he said, he didn’t know that lockdown "was going to be a lifetime", and to Gracie determined to speak to the President and ask if he knows "what lockdown is doing to kids"?" she told us.
The full stories were published in the Daily Maverick during Child Protection Week and it was from that article that the idea of the Mandela Month image campaign arose.
The graphics were created by Kerry Nash from Red Fox, who took the stories and identified the things that most resonated with her, then added these touching and profound images.
"For the most part, we don’t know what the children look like (we do our best to protect their identities), but their words have come alive through the images that Kerry has created," Voster explained.
Vorster told us that during lockdown, there has been a marked increase in abandonment and neglect as poverty increases.
"But at the same time," she says, "the Baby Home and Child and Youth Care Centres, and other child-related NGOs including special needs schools, aftercare facilities, Early Childhood Development centres, youth development projects, child protection organisations, and facilities providing trauma counselling, therapy and victim support, are all struggling to stay afloat as donor funds diminish and fund-raising opportunities are limited."
They desperately need support.
So the first goal of this campaign was to share extracts of the children’s stories for the first 18 days of July, culminating on Mandela Day to mobilise people to help those caring for children and protecting children’s rights, not just on Mandela Day but in the future too.
"The second goal was to encourage us as adults to hear our children’s stories," Vorster says, "There is something really profound about letting children speak, and listening without judgement, guilt or trying to fix things."
"Just sitting with these children and their stories has had a big impact on me and I hope that it has touched many of the readers too."
Vorster says that although For the Voiceless is a brand new baby initiative, started in May 2020, it has been with her since she adopted her daughter in 2012.
"We were blessed to work with an incredible adoption agency and our process went really smoothly (as smoothly as any adoption can be in South Africa)."
"But the process opened my eyes to extent of need when it comes to vulnerable children in the country."
While she was on maternity leave, she began using her background as a social scientist and writer to unpack some of the bigger problems that children in South Africa are facing.
"The goal is to change the way we think about them and their needs and (hopefully) the legislation and policy that governs their lives. What began as a focus on adoption has stretched to many sad and challenging topics including abandonment, abuse and child homicide."
"But as hard as they are to face, I feel we owe it to our little ones to hear their stories and do our best to make changes they need."
For the Voiceless was born out of that desire, as well as the objective of supporting the many heroic women and men who fight for our little ones, and provide them with the love, nurturing, safe spaces and families they need to grow into the whoever they were intended to be, Vorster explains.
Vorster says that For the Voiceless exists to give those NGOs, many of whom are also muted, and our precious little ones, a voice.
Some of these stories are tragic.
"After I shared the post about 'Nkosi' - it isn’t his real name - I was contacted by the Baby Home to say that he passed away suddenly a week ago," Vorster told Parent24.
"It is heartbreaking, especially since he was one of the abandoned babies who was found and who did have the chance to be loved and nurtured for a tiny time. But it is a reminder of why I do what I do and that we can’t stop fighting because the need is big."
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