By Chelsey Acierno
In January of 2013, I participated in an exchange through SFU to the University of Cape Town in South Africa in which I was fortunate enough to secure an internship with a grassroots HIV/AIDs organization. Having previous experience in the field, the organization welcomed me onto their projects. Among other things, I was tasked to liaise between the women working diligently in the townships and a group of high risk HIV+ youth from a black township ten minutes outside Cape Town. As a young person myself, the woman saw me as a tool to connect with the younger generation of “born frees”, the generation of South Africans who have lived their lives absent of the racist and segregated Apartheid regime, but who are living amongst the families suffering from generations of anger, loss, and the scars of an oppressive regime.
As my time progressed in the townships, I began to (slowly!) gain the trust of these young girls, a cohort of 12-18 years old of which the organization identified as the most at risk in their group. An at risk youth in South Africa falls among the usual: substance abuse, gang activity, criminal behavior, and family degradation. Additionally, though, these young girls are suffering immensely as victims of sexual violence and rape. South Africa has long been in the headlines for the atrocious violent rapes that have cast the country as the ‘rape capital of the world’ and of this cohort, 6 of the 12 girls acquired HIV from rape, the other half from mother-to-child-transmission. The sad reality of this small group of girls is that of those 6, the majority were raped by members of their own family.
So when a 12 year old approaches you in full trust, asking how to stop her father from raping her, what does one say? As many people who enter development, it is not rare to be thrown into situations where one is not qualified to assess the situation. We are often asked to do things or find ourselves amongst situations that we do not have the answers for. So what do we do?
When that little girl spoke those words out loud, my heart shattered into a million pieces. I asked myself “what are you doing here!? You cannot answer this! You will never understand her life.” I began to panic internally, realizing that until that moment, I was able to deal with what had been thrown my way, though not easily. I knew that whatever I could tell her to do, or do to attempt to help her (with the aid of the organization and police intervention), this, or things like this, would continue to haunt her life just by nature of the prevailing systemic issues within South Africa’s townships decades past Apartheid. But in these moments of absolute helplessness and complete incapacity to alleviate ones suffering, we still need to do something. We are often asked to do things or find ourselves amongst situations that we do not have the answers for. So what do we do?
As all these emotions and thoughts circled through my brain, I still had a wide eyed, beautiful little girl sitting in front of me, asking for help. I learned that I was the first person she had ever admitted this to and slowly we walked our way through her horrid late night encounters with the man who was supposed to protect her from all harm.
Situations and questions like these flooded my ears as the youth began to see that someone would listen. Do not get me wrong, the women who work within the organization are doing incredible things in the Townships, but identifying with young people have always been a struggle for organizations. My experience in South Africa demonstrated that my qualifications have limits and within professionalism, need to be passed off to those who have the skills to deal with situations like these. However, I learned that I may not be qualified (yet) on paper, but I will always be qualified with my heart. Often our hearts are our strongest weapon if we are prepared to sit and listen, wipe tears, and be an ally. I know I cannot tackle rape and masculinity in South Africa; cracks and scars are heavy in the hearts of those who lived through decades of racial subjugation and unfortunately, these young girls are just one small group living through the country’s quest to heal itself. I learned things in South Africa that no human should ever experience, yet these young girls face them every day and still have the courage to keep on living. I was shown the power of the human heart for those who have the courage to open it up.
Chelsey Acierno is a graduate of Simon Fraser University, where she majored in International Studies within the stream of International Security and Conflict. Throughout her degree she has focused on HIV/AIDs and Youth Development. This story is of an experience in an internship in Cape Town, South Africa, while doing an overseas study exchange through SFU at the University of Cape Town. Chelsey
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