With capacity building for social workers, a child forced into sex work receives the help she needs

November 30, 2022
A street in Vryheid, South Africa. Credit: Pact

For most of her childhood, Sinothile lived with her grandmother in Bhekuzulu township, Vryheid, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Her biological mother was mostly absent for her childhood, visiting the family sporadically. When she was 14, her mother came and asked that she accompany her to visit with friends in another town over a holiday. Sinothile was excited as she had never traveled far from home, and she would get to spend time with her mother. Her excitement was soon extinguished as the reality of her mother’s plans became clear.

Sinothile found herself living on the streets of Vryheid town with her mother, who had been working as a sex worker and wanted Sinothile to do the same. She initially refused, but under pressure for survival, she conceded. For about two months, Sinothile was forced to have sex with men that her mother brought to her. She was isolated and unable to reach out for help. Her opportunity came when her mother brought a man to her for sex, and she refused because she did not have a condom. While her mother was with the man, she was able to reach out to her peers, explain her situation and ask them to find her help. 

South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD) social workers in Vryheid were notified and immediately stepped in with assistance from the police. Sinothile was removed from the streets and a children’s court inquiry began. 

Through the USAID/PEPFAR-funded Government Capacity Building and Support program (GCBS), which is led by Pact, DSD social workers have received capacity development to improve response and interventions for girls like Sinothile. Through GCBS, Pact is helping to build DSD’s capacity to better support orphans and vulnerable children, especially those affected by HIV. By collaborating with South Africa’s government, including DSD, the Department of Health and local municipalities and schools, Pact has helped to markedly increase the number of adolescent girls receiving HIV prevention and sexual health services.

The GCBS team had trained the social worker supporting Sinothile on the legal framework for intervening, as well as techniques for supportive counseling. In addition, the social worker was able to use her training on the Guidelines for Social Service Practitioners Enabling Access to HIV Testing Services for children, adolescents and youth, which were developed in partnership with DSD through GCBS. With her social worker’s support, Sinothile accessed HIV risk assessment, testing and post-exposure prophylactics (PEP).

Because of GCBS capacity building, the social worker notes, she was able to take a more holistic approach when addressing Sinothile’s needs, broadening her traditional response to more effectively address health and HIV-related needs, rather than focusing only on a statutory response, such as placement in alternate care.

Because of capacity development from Pact, girls like Sinothile are receiving comprehensive support, including HIV services.

Today, Sinothile remains in the protection of a Child and Youth Care Centre while her social worker provides parental training and support to her grandmother so that Sinothile can return to a safe family environment in the future. The social worker maintains contact with Sinothile, who says she is “very grateful that I am in a safe place. I have never had such a warm and beautiful home.”

Sinothile’s situation was a stark reminder to the Department of Social Development of the dangers facing girls in the Vryheid community. The town is a trucking route between Richards Bay, a key working harbor, and the rest of South Africa, as well as a gateway to Eswatini. Together, DSD, GCBS and local NGOs are working to establish improved networks to identify girls at risk through training on the Rishia Prevention and Early Intervention program, another initiative developed under GCBS. This program supports comprehensive risk screening of adolescent girls and provides holistic response to ensure that girls in the community remain safe and supported.