By Pieter van Zyl
SHE’S been called many names since being raped by a classmate in the school toilets – but “victim” is one name that can’t describe this teenager.
“I’m a winner,” says 14-year-old Lizelle* of Cape Town. “I decided to speak out and use what happened to me to help other kids.”
She has small pink flowers stuck behind her left ear. “I passed them earlier and heard them calling, ‘Pick us. It’s spring’,” she says, fingering the silver cross on a chain around her neck.
We meet her at the TygerBear Social Work Unit for Traumatised Children and Families at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. The unit is a haven for children who’ve been affected by abuse, divorce, loss of a parent and other traumas.
Today Lizelle is hostess at the volunteer day of the unit, the only one of its kind that provides a comprehensive service to traumatised children and their families.
“Recently I addressed the whole school about the work the unit does. Except for a few stupid children most congratulated me and said, ‘You’ve become so mature’,” says Lizelle, who’s dressed in a fashionable black outfit with a bright pink scarf wrapped around her neck.
Around us, between the hundreds of teddy bears on sale, are photographs of children with their eyes blacked out to protect their identities. Some of them have been so badly abused you can hardly tell they’re human.
“Initially it was difficult looking at the pictures and hearing their stories but what happened to me and these children’s courage was a wake-up call.”
One Monday afternoon at the end of last year Lizelle was overpowered and raped in the boys’ toilet of a leading Cape Town primary school. The rapist was a former boyfriend of the same age. The case has since been dropped because of a lack of evidence.
“Trusting guys is still difficult but I don’t want to give up,” says Lizelle. “By being involved I’m learning to believe in myself again and one day I’ll again believe in the goodness of people.”
One of the flowers behind her ear falls to the ground. She scoops it up deftly. “I want to help other survivors like me and prevent them becoming lost. Initially I also felt as if the nightmare would never end.
“But now I know it will keep on only as long as you allow it to come between you and your dreams.
“People are still talking about the girl who got up to things in the toilets but I’ve long since ceased to be that girl.”
The support and insights of Lizelle and many other young volunteers is vital to the TygerBear unit, which deals with at least 37 000 consultations and telephone inquiries a year. Lizelle is living proof you’re never too young to fight trauma. And there are many more young people just like her.
WHEN the little girl arrived at Tygerberg Hospital her feet had been so badly burnt by the boiling hot bath water into which her father had put her that she wouldn’t walk normally again.
Her mother vanished soon afterwards and her family, in whose care she was initially placed, paraded her at traffic lights as they begged for money.
But after years of counselling by staff at the TygerBear unit she’s risen above the dreadful circumstances of her first years. She’s now in foster care and doing well in Grade 10 at a Cape Town school.
Recently when the time came for her to “graduate” from the unit she asked to stay on as a volunteer to help others like her.
Now she’s involved in supporting and nurturing other children and her story serves as an inspiration for others who have been through severe trauma.
When a Grade 8 boy whose brother had died of cancer came to TygerBear as a volunteer in a community school project he realised he too had pain he needed to work through. He’s doing so by talking to other children about his experience.
Twelve-year-old Chris* came to the unit a year ago after witnessing his father shoot his mother, sister and then himself. After intensive counselling he began to realise if he reached out to others he didn’t feel so sad and alone. Now with the help of a therapist he leads a support group for traumatised boys of his age.
“I know it hurts and that the pain doesn’t go away but this lady will help you cope,” is Chris’ message to other youngsters.
The 14-year-old girl who was held captive underground and used as a sex slave by convicted serial rapist Johannes Mowers in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley near Hermanus was also treated at the unit.
Her mission now is to warn parents of what could happen to their children if they’re not prepared, and she wants to write about her nightmare.
“Like adults, children search for meaning and explanations for what has happened to them,” says Marita Rademeyer, a clinical psychologist at the Child Trauma Clinic in Pretoria.
“It’s important parents and other adults give children spiritual guidance and try to explain that criminals make wrong choices but they can make right choices even though it may not be easy.”
Lizelle, Chris and the others at the unit have decided to make the right choices; to live fully despite the traumatic experiences they’ve had to conquer.
“It isn’t easy talking about what happened but it’s necessary,” Lizelle says. “The girls at my school who heard what happened to me came to me with their own stories. All I could do was listen because I know how difficult it is.
“Parents, believe your children – especially about something such as rape. Why would I make up a story like that; muddy my own name?” Lizelle says.
“I had parents and friends who stood by me. Initially I also thought no one would believe me but I would never have known if I hadn’t spoken up. Don’t keep it to yourself or you’ll be a victim.”
Lizelle has become more involved in her church and teaches Sunday School. “Believing gives meaning to my life.”
As a nine-year-old Thalyta was threatened with a knife and raped in bushes at Olifantsfontein, Gauteng, when she went looking for her brothers.
“I’m just nine, please don’t kill me,” she begged repeatedly. When the rapist eventually let her go she ran home, got undressed, threw her clothes away and took a shower. Her parents didn’t ask what had happened or help her lay a charge.
Now, nearly 30 years later, she’s beginning to heal thanks to her involvement as a volunteer at the unit among other things.
“As a child I thought it was my fault. No one corrected me. Before the incident I’d done well at school but afterwards I began to do poorly. How could my parents and teachers not have realised something was drastically wrong?”
If traumatised children don’t receive counselling they will make wrong choices in life, says Thalyta, who at 22 married a man who later assaulted her. She and her three-year-old son had to run away.
“I believed I didn’t deserve anything better. It took a lot of hard work and guidance from my spiritual mother to come to the realisation that if I didn’t set limits no one else would.”
Every small victory paved the way for greater ones. She obtained a protection order against her ex-husband but decided not to speak badly of him in their child’s presence. She has since married a man who treats her like a queen and gave her the chance to get well.
She has this to say to children in need, “Don’t wait as long as I did to stand up for yourself. You’ll save a lot of people much pain.”
* Pseudonyms have been used and personal details have been changed to protect the children’s identities.
If a friend experiences trauma
- Read up on trauma. Google “trauma” on the internet and know what to expect if your friend experiences it, says Janine Shamos of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
- Invite the friend to accompany you on outings but choose activities carefully. For example if she was in a shop when a robbery took place she’ll initially find it frightening to go shopping.
- If you’re worried about someone at your school ask your parents to speak to the child’s teacher. “Gaining access to a child in need is easier if you work through the school,” says Anneke Putter of the TygerBear unit.
For more information and guidance call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800-12-13-14 or SMS 32312 or call the TygerBear 24-hour helpline on 082-994-4301.
Fashion Parade against Abuse
On 7 November a glittering event will be held in aid of the TygerBear unit. One of the glamorous people attending this fashion parade is model and TV personality Minki Visser.
Charlene Sauerman of Bellville, a leading Cape Town fashion designer, and other well-known designers are involved in the event. YOU’s sister magazine Huisgenoot is the press partner for this good cause.