Today was my first experience of children using the Bobbi Bear to communicate a rape. I cannot put into words how harrowing the experience was. We had been trained to remain calm; to control our feelings of shock or disgust (mainly to protect the children and prevent them from taking on the emotions of the adults), but I have to be honest and admit that fighting back the tears was painful as I sat and observed the trauma unfold.
The ‘Bobbi Bear’ was conceived in 1992 by the founder, Jackie Branfield, in the infancy of the organisation. Jackie had observed multiple issues hindering the conviction and sentencing of sexual abuse perpetrators, namely the inability of children to effectively communicate to police offers and caregivers what had happened to them. Jackie told me that through trial and error eventually came up with the ‘Bobbi Bear’ design which has now helped thousands of children survive rape.
‘Bobbi Bear’ is a smooth cuddly toy bear which acts as a non-threatenings means for child victims of sexual abuse to communicate their traumas. Her arms and legs move allowing easy manipulation to demonstrate what has happened to the child so they are relieved of having to relive their trauma by pointing to their own body parts. Many children here have been taught not to point or touch their ‘private parts’, so using the bear also avoids any further humiliation in doing so. Younger children, particularly those under 4 cannot accurately verbally describe what has happened to them and many just find it too traumatising. Use of the bear also transcends any potential language barriers which might occur, a sacred tool given the 11 nationally recognised languages used in South Africa. It is an absolutely phenomenal concept which has deservedly placed Jackie Branfield amongst other leading humanitarian activists and an impressive list of accolades.
So here we are, two Child Safety Officers, a fellow volunteer and myself, sat in a Victim Friendly Centre at a local police station. The room is clean, brightly coloured and child friendly and stands in stark comparison to some of the other dilapidated government official waiting rooms I have sat in over the last week.
In walk our first case. Two little girls dressed in white knee length dresses and black patent shoes (they are in their school uniforms), a picture symbolic of purity and innocence. The two girls chat with Martha* (Child Safety Officer) and introduce themselves; Hannah* and Rosie*. They are both 5 years old and best friends. The Child Safety Officer’s begin speaking to the girls about school, their favourite subjects and how many friends they have, a deliberate attempt to relax the girls and build trust with them. The conversation continues for around 10 minutes, interspersed with giggles and gentle voices, as the mother sits in the corner with tears streaming down her eyes. Talking draws to a close and the mother is asked to leave the room. The girls look relaxed and calm.
The child safety officer reaches to a ‘Bobbi Bear’ and hands it to the little girl. The bear is used as a proxy for herself. We dress the bear in a small pink pair of panties and ask the girl to show us what has happened to her. Hannah explains that her and Rosie had been playing in the garden when a neighbour, Thomas* had asked the girls to go to his house to play instead. Upon arrival both girls were dragged into the bushes and forcibly undressed by Thomas. As she explains this, Hannah removes the bears panties and throws them to the ground. Hannah then reaches for another bear (attributed to Thomas), and puts the bear on top of hers. Thomas had pinned her down and raped her whilst Rosie sat petrified and was ordered to watch.
Hannah is given a pen and a plaster and asked to draw where any penetration had happened to her. Hannah takes the pen and scribbles where a vagina would be on a bear. She draws tears on the bears eyes from where she was crying from the pain and fear, and she places a plaster over her mouth as Thomas had threatened to hurt her and her family if she told anybody about what had happened.
When Hannah has finished, the child safety officers remove the bear and continue to speak to the girl about how she feels. Both girls are then driven to the local hospital with a rape bag containing food, clothes, and a drink. As the girls had been involved in penis penetration the child has a 72 hour window to get to hospital where a doctor will dispense a treatment to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection, post-exposure prophylaxis or PEP, which minimises the risk of infection by up to 66%. We settle the children and mother in the waiting room of the hospital and we leave.
It has been an emotionally difficult day today and when I returned to my cottage I sat for the first time on my trip and cried. The reality of what is happening to children here is just heartbreaking, and whilst the children appear to be smiling if you look closely into their eyes you can see they feel dead inside. It is abhorrent and it is evil and it is not fair on these children.
The concept of the ‘Bobbi Bear’, the staff and their work is the most inspiring work I have ever been involved in and it is a real privilege to be amongst them. If anyone can reduce these children’s pain and suffering and bring perpetrators to justice, I have confidence and knowledge that it can be found in Operation Bobbi Bear.
*False names are given to protect the children’s identity.