“It was too good to be true, honestly. Having someone to listen to me, to all my problems. Do ITSAKANE ONNICA MALULEKE, PEER GROUP TRAINER, CHILDLINE, GAUTENG
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’.”
When Childline first reached out to Tsakane with the My Journey programme, poverty and the resulting circumstances 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, as 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”. Tsakane also had other traumas to deal with. The suicide of her father, the dismissal of her and her mother from the family after her father died, the seeming impossibility of finishing her education, and the murder of her friend for a cell phone.
These are the realities that lead many young women and girls in South Africa into relationships in exchange for food, clothing and other support. As Tsakane explains, “Where I live there are many child-headed households, so 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’re going to 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 support she was suspicious at first.
But Tsakane decided to embrace what Childline was offering, thinking, “Okay, let’s just give this a try. 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?”
The My Journey Programme Tsakane participated in through Childline 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 (such as HIV testing and PrEP) and other services (like economic strengthening and psychosocial support). The aim is to increase retention in school, decrease HIV incidence, decrease teenage pregnancy, decrease gender-based violence and increase economic opportunities for young people.
This integrated approach to supporting young people is critical. Unemployment, lack of opportunity, substance abuse, HIV prevalence and mental health difficulties are all interconnected. And this is especially the case when it comes to young people, who are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Most new HIV infections occur among young adults and adolescents, with HIV prevalence among young women over three times greater than that of men their age. As Tsakane puts it:
“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 off-load you’re going to go into substances. And then, if you are intoxicated, you’re not going to 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 where the programme runs is palpable. “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,” says Tsakane. But she doesn’t stop there, the integrated nature of the programme is crucial to her, “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 on 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.”