CAPE TOWN, South Africa-In this seacoast town, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, children hustle in a bustling marketplace where the common commodity is sexual pleasure.
Many of this port’s 1,000 homeless children-mostly lured from the nation’s still racially segregated and impoverished townships-offer sexual favors for as little as $10.
That is not unusual in a booming seaport in a struggling economy. What is rare is a residence offering female street children shelter, food, education and counseling until they reach 18.
This report offers a rare look at an institution within the emerging society of South Africa-still struggling with the remnants of not only apartheid but also systematic gender bias.
Ons Plek-Afrikaans for Our Place–is funded by the city’s Child Welfare Society and is the first and only program in South Africa exclusively serving female children from the street. It has only 16 bunks, although its staff says it can squeeze in a few more if necessary. It is not known what percentage of the city’s homeless children are female, in part, because some of the adults who control them also may house them. However, it is believed that the need greatly exceeds the availability of shelter and assistance.
Entering Ons Plek through its locked, prison-like gates, one is confronted with the view of a pale stucco dormitory that has an institutional look and feel. Once the children are inside the barrier, however, they are protected from a culture where female street children are often bullied and sexually abused. “Girls will put tomato paste on their pads, to prove they have their period because they can’t say ‘no’ to sex,” says Pam Jackson, a social worker and director of Ons Plek.
(The residents were not interviewed because they spoke Xhosa and Afrikaans and no interpreter was available.)
The residents have decorated their dormitory with posters of American music stars and fashion models, mostly white. Stuffed toy animals share some beds.
In the 11 years since it opened, Ons Plek has sheltered more than 2,000 female street children, with only about 5 percent returning to the street. Some street children drop in for only a day; others stay for years until they are self-sufficient or return to their families.
The Ons Plek staff calls their residents’ female street children, rather than street girls, to avoid negative connotations of the sex industry. The male children are called “street boys” apparently without the same negative meaning.
Beyond providing safety and shelter, Ons Plek attempts to give each of its residents the skills needed to survive outside its gates. They share all household responsibilities, such as buying groceries, cooking meals and cleaning house. In addition, the residents must buy all their groceries from a common fund that they control. Therefore, if a resident decides to buy steak for dinner, she quickly is informed by the other residents about less-costly menus.
Ons Plek also requires that each resident must earn their own pocket money, though they are not allowed to work in the sex industry. If they are not already employed when they arrive, they must start looking for work immediately.
“If, after one or two weeks on their own, they’re having difficulty finding a job, we’ll help,” Jackson says. “If they’re sitting on their bums, we’ll say ‘try that somewhere else.’ “
The residents either attend a community school or the in-house classes that cover basic skills. For those having trouble keeping up, Ons Plek offers an afternoon homework program.
Also, the staff leads regular group discussions of topics outside the ordinary school curriculum, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, protection from sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.
And in a highly innovative practice, Ons Plek permits young mothers to reside there with their children.
“We kept them so we could teach them how to mother,” says director Jackson. “All girls need it. How else do you learn it?” Letting young mothers mingle with those who are not parents also gives the non-parents a way to learn what motherhood requires, she said, adding proudly that that only one girl conceived while living there. Ons Plek has another unusual policy-this one designed to teach the basic political education. The entire Ons Plek community determines discipline.
Each week the staff meets with the residents to determine appropriate consequences for policy violations.
For example, smoking inside the residence is considered an especially serious hazard because one former resident caused a devastating fire in the dormitory.
Therefore, if a resident is caught smoking indoors, the entire community-staff and residents–must decide on the penalty-usually being required to spend the night outside the dormitory, but on the grounds where she can be seen and heard by the staff.
In a country that is still wrestling with forgiving the wrongs of the apartheid era, this exercise may indeed be the most important for the girls of Ons Plek.
For more information about Ons Plek, email or write P.O. Box 3506, Cape Town 8000, RSA.
Catherine Cuellar is a Dallas-based free-lance writer.