Africa, Headlines

SOUTH AFRICA: Through The Eyes of Children

Kristin Palitza

DURBAN, Nov 12 2008 (IPS) - “I didn’t know that girls can play soccer. I thought it was a sport only for boys,” says Thulile Khanyile. But after a photography and writing project changed her perception of gender roles, the 14-year-old helped start a girl’s soccer team at her high school in Nkandla, a rural area in the heart of Zululand.

Girls soccer team, Nkandla Credit:  PhotoVoice

Girls soccer team, Nkandla Credit: PhotoVoice

With support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Sonke Gender Justice, a national NGO that works with boys and men on issues of gender, HIV and human rights, launched its PhotoVoice project in Nkandla in June to make children’s voices heard through photography and writing.

Twenty children at Mphathesitha High School took part in a four-day workshop, which created a space for boys and girls to talk about their experiences, hopes and dreams.

“One of the main aims of the project is to encourage communities to take action to meet the needs identified by the children,” explains Sonke PhotoVoice project manager Nyanda Khanyile.

Children between the ages of 12 and 18 spoke about how they see themselves in their communities, their perceptions of adults, their understandings of gender and HIV/AIDS and their experiences with service delivery, with school and sometimes with illness, abuse and hunger.

“We want to build confidence and self-esteem by teaching new skills,” says Khanyile. “Many children in rural communities experience social ills but they don’t know how to express themselves.”

After the initial conversations, participants were trained in photography skills, writing and story development and ultimately transferred their stories into photography and writing.

The children were also encouraged to think about what assistance they would need to reach their dreams and who they would like to play a role in doing so – Thulile, for example, not only spoke about her wish to play soccer but made a plan to involve her school principal in setting up a girls’ team.

Gender equality was a new concept to the children who took part. They have grown up with the understanding that men and women each have their own, separate roles to play in society.

“I learnt many things,” says 15-year-old Thulane Shange. “I used to think boys and girls can’t do the same things.” He says he now understands that women can also be heads of households and should be given the same rights and responsibilities as men.

Apart from gender, children raised a wide range of issues through their PhotoVoice work, including the power dynamics of virginity testing, lack of sanitation, hunger, child-headed households, crime and HIV. One boy complained about the dusty roads he has to travel every day that cause him chest infections and asthma. Another boy spoke about the need for public transport because it takes him an hour to walk to school, sunshine or rain.

Other children asked for running water and electricity, because each day after school, they have to collect firewood and walk down to the river to fetch water. “If I had less chores to do, I would have more time to do my homework and study for school,” one girl said.

Khanyile says he was particularly impressed by the fact that, when thinking about hopes and dreams, the children identified issues that could benefit the community as a whole, not only them: “I was amazed that the children chose far-reaching issues that affect everybody in their communities and their childhood development. None of them spoke about personal gain.”

One boy, 16-year-old Khayelethu Zondi, raised concerns around child safety and high levels of crime in his community and took a photo of signs outside of his school that prohibit firearms and other weapons. Next to the photo he wrote: “If am inside the school I feel safe because there are things that are not allowed to be inside. So we are all protected from bad things from out side.”

A key focus of the project was the roles men play in children’s lives, including whether men – their fathers, uncles, teachers, religious and traditional leaders and government officials – are involved in caring and supporting them, particularly in the context of gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS.

In their PhotoVoice stories, some children said they wished their fathers were more involved in their lives and play a role, other than financial, in taking care of them. Others pointed out positive, male role models they knew in their community.

16-year-old Nompumelelo Masikane, for example, took a photo of the chairman of her school, whom she looks up to. Underneath the picture, she writes: “[…] He inspires me to focus on my school work and forget about useless things like drinking alcohol and dating.”

At the end of the project, Sonke exhibited the children’s PhotoVoice posters in the Mphathesitha community hall. More than 600 people came to see the works, including representatives from both municipality and traditional leadership.

Exhibition guests were asked to write personal commitments on pieces of paper, stating how they will contribute to improving the lives of children in response to the issues raised. They also noted down questions, comments and suggestions on postcards, which were sent to the local municipality to make policy makers aware of children’s needs.

“We want to encourage ownership and participation and persuade adults to respond with action to children’s voices,” explains Khanyile.

Nkandla municipality’s strategic planning and implementation manager, Mbongiseni Ndlela, promised the children’s requests will be considered in the municipality’s Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) and thereby directly influence local policy-making.

“Normally, the leadership only consults adults during annual imbizos [traditional gatherings] and children’s needs are sometimes overlooked. Through interacting directly with children, IDPs will be informed by the children not only talk about them,” he says.

More exhibits will be held in Nkandla in both schools and municipal offices. Sonke also plans to show the works in provincial and national government offices and departments as well as at national and international conferences including the Commission on the Status of Women in New York in 2009.

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