Taking on the Tough Issues

When your goal is protecting children, you can’t shy away from the hard issues. Family Support Trust knew this when they started an organization to address child sexual abuse and neglect. So how does a small community-based organization in Zimbabwe begin such significant change?  First, they focus on the child. According to FST, “the child-friendliness of the service that we provide is at the heart of transforming the child victim into a child survivor.”

This small grassroots organization in Harare has a big reach. By training community leaders, they reach hundreds with information about child sexual abuse through local trainings and performances. Last year alone, over 1250 people attended their dramatic performances in five communities, and 166 children and 137 adults attended community awareness trainings.

a mother and child with office worker

Community and children’s participation is key for FST. They’ve found that the more children are involved in their programs, the more likely they are to feel comfortable disclosing any experiences of child sexual abuse. When children come to them for support they also participate in efforts to fight abuse in their community. Some children create poems and songs on child sexual abuse, showing a new openness on difficult and taboo subjects. This transformation is something FST staff is lucky enough to see often, and it sustains their motivation to continue. One staff member said, “At Family Support Trust, we are most excited that children who approach us as victims of child sexual abuse end up being survivors of child sexual abuse.”

Their path to healing and leadership isn’t simple. FST helps children gain access to medical examinations, which cover physical and mental assessment, screening of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV with available treatment, and the compilation of affidavits for use as evidence in courts. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) treatment provides one-month of antiretroviral treatment to children as a preventative measure against HIV.

To help them fulfill these ambitious goals, FST started their own “Victim Friendly Clinics” that are located in government hospitals. The clinics fill a gap in services for children. Eventually, they hope that government will take over the clinics, securing their long-term sustainability.

The clinics and their work with hospitals, helps to promote child-friendly medical examinations, treatment, and follow-up protocols for children. Working with children from the time of their trauma to the prosecution of perpetrators in court, they are able to take a multi-disciplinary approach that extends from the local clinic to the courtroom.

FST has even managed to influence some white garment churches that practice early marriages. A few churches have accepted their programs and are actively participating in the fight against child sexual abuse, including forced child marriages.

To gather even more information and find opportunities for greater impact, FST conducted research on the nature, causal factors, and prevalence of child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe. Their findings identified gaps in child protection, especially among girl children. FST pointed out that the increased rate of sexual abuse among girls is rooted in cultural beliefs, stereotypes, and poverty. When FST questioned what to do next, they went to their own roots and again focused on the child. They gathered girls together to inform them of their rights and offer a place to discuss incidences of child sexual abuse.

Family Support Trust now sees the need to scale up community mobilization to benefit more children and their families. Their linkages to local and national government agencies have them involved in advocacy, policy development, and resource mobilization. Being grounded in community will help them to continue to bring local perspectives to even larger tables.