The first of many

“When the door closes, God always open the window”

Thenjiwe Ngcobo, born and grew up in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal under Inadi tribal authority. Grew up in poverty, raised in a traditional family where domestic violence was normalised. The first to pass matric with exception. The first to access tertiary education in the family. One of the first Thuthuzela Coordinators in KZN. The first women to introduce service for sexually reactive children in KZN in order to prevent the cycle of sexual and gender based violence likely to be committed by previously abused or exposed children. The woman who is not afraid to bring new concepts in the boardroom table.

“Exposure to gender based violence and poverty made me the woman I am today”, I never thought that one day I will stand on top of the hill and share with the world that my horrific experiences trained and shaped me to be the person I am today. From being a child who was exposed and affected by domestic violence and poverty to becoming a women who fights against the scourge of sexual and gender based violence, the founder of an organisation that promotes the breaking of the cycle of abuse against women and other vulnerable members of the society

I was born and raised in a rural area by a very traditional family. When I was young I was told that when I was two years old that my parents were involved in a bus accident. My mother lost her right leg which was amputated right below the knee, she has a big scar in her forehead and I was told my father suffered minor injuries and lost his teeth which results in him using false teeth.

I was raised by a disabled woman, my parents got married after that accident and my mother was unemployed. The brave woman that my mother was, she bought a sewing machine to be able to make dresses for us and for selling in order to make a little income. My mother never went to dressmaking school nor had somebody to mentor or teach her to make dresses.

My father was an “abusive drunkard” (that’s how family use to call him) he loved girls, a handsome man, “girls would throw themselves to him” and he would not think twice about cheating on his wife.

My father was an angry man and was known in the community as the man who can fight. My mother was his punching bag, I’ve lost count on how many times of my life as a child I had seen my mother being beaten. I remember when I was seven years old, my mother was pregnant with my younger brother who passed away. I woke up after hearing mother crying which, she was beaten, pregnant and sitting in the pool of her blood. I was seven years old but I can still give the picture of what I saw. It was known that more often we use to run away from home with my mother and my elder brother to sleep at the neighbours either because we have been chased out or my father decided to bring his girlfriend at home.

It took a long time for my mother to receive the disability grant on the hand my father use to work whenever he feels like it and therefore we lived in poverty. I had to carry the container to ask for maize meal from the neighbours so that we can cook and have at least one meal a day. With time my mother started to receive disability grant and the situation got better though the grocery she used to buy could not last the whole month and sometimes when she get back from collecting the grant, she would find my father waiting to be given that money to go and spend with his friends.

I grew up in poverty and I saw my mother being abused physically, emotionally and economically. She lost self-confidence, she never reported abuse, and she could not run away or protect herself and us as her children. She kept on saying education was the only key to give us powers not to depend on a man, She preached the language of women economic empowerment, she felt that she could not leave because she was not going to be able to raise us on her own.

I went to Primary school and high school in the area where we were residing. When I was doing matric, I was the first to pass Matric with Exemption and my dream was to go to Varsity. When I got accepted at the University of Natal to do my degree in social science, everybody was laughing at me in the family because everybody knew that we couldn’t even afford to buy food. My Mother stood by me and assured me that it was going to happen.

She tried all she could to get me money for registration, she went to the extended family up to the loan sharks to borrow money which unfortunately she did not get. When I got my acceptance letter from the University, we could not believe when we saw he brackets where the family contribution amount was supposed to be written the figures there was no money. I called Varsity to confirm the amount and they indeed confirmed that I was not supposed to pay any family contribution amount. That evening we were singing and praising God for the miracle, so I was the very first person to go to varsity at home including the extended family. I broke the curse that our lives were never going to change.

I was the first to go to Varsity but as we speak today, I have lost count of how many members of my family including the extended family who had been to varsity after me and completed their degrees and diplomas. I guided and motivated my siblings, my cousins, my nieces, my nephews, my in-laws even my own children. My first born son has completed his junior degree and has been accepted to do his honours degree.

My Varsity life was not easy; I left home with R30 in my pocket in 1999. I had my suitcase filled with clothes and my mother made most of my dresses. Up until today, I wear clothes made by my mother. I was very much-reserved student in varsity; I only depended on TEFSA funding and had no any other support.

My parents couldn’t even afford buying me stationery or giving me transport fare. I could only go home after receiving meal allowance, I used to buy home grocery first before buying my own grocery after receiving that meal allowance. I supported my family on that meal allowance until I finished my degree.

I had no confidence, I felt like everybody could see that I was from the poor family. Participating in group discussions and tutorials was the biggest challenge, in fact, I wanted to do everything alone in the corner because I was afraid of being known and I always felt like I was in danger. My past and my low self-esteem affected my academic performance negetively. I passed with few supplementary exams there and there.

My First work experience I got through Woodrow Wilson Foundation placement was with eThekwini municipality where I was placed as an intern within the section of social development and became part of community programs facilitators. I gained exposure and experience of working in the field with communities in informal settlement who had different social ills including gender based violence, child headed households, poverty, sexual violence, teenage pregnancy and many more social-ills.

The very first rape case I saw was from that community when I was part of that project. I gained interest in fighting for women’s rights from that exposure. The first person I fought for was my mother, I gained courage to stand in front of my father and told him that what he was doing was abuse and that he will never lay a hand on my mother whilst I am still alive.

My second project was my brothers who seemed to have learnt from my father, I stood up and told them that a women has a right to be respected and to make decisions about their lives as human. I was never my brother’s favourite to an extent that when I was about to get married, my elder brother asked my husband if he was sure about getting married to such a stubborn woman. One of the decisions I made was that I was never going to understand and accommodate being bullied or abused or understand the abuse of any woman for that matter. I told myself that I will never keep quite when there is a need for me to talk and that I will do everything I can to contribute to behavioural change as long as that will result in society where women and children are not abused.

Two years later on the 1st of December 2005, I got employed by the National Prosecuting Authority Sexual offences unit as the coordinator of services to be received by the victims of sexual violence at the Thuthuzela Care Centre. I became one of the first Thuthuzela Coordinators in KZN by then there were only two centres in KZN and ten in South Africa. My main role was to ensure service availability and accessibility for the victims at the centre and that all stakeholders are on board and services are well coordinated. I worked for the NPA for 8 years seeing victims of sexual violence every single day.

This position equipped me with skills to manage stakeholders in the boardroom, to work with the survivors at the centre and to conduct prevention programs in the ground and therefore I came out multi skilled. I became the woman I am today. In the process of providing service, I observed the gaps in the system while victims were receiving service. I was collecting data and stats, analysing it, compiling monthly, quarterly and annual reports. When Performance assessments were conducted, I received a number of performance bonus awards in consecutive years.

I observed that most victims of sexual and gender based violence were women and girls, majority being girls below the age of 18 and those below the age of 12 years. I observed and gathered stats indicating that most victims are violated by people they know, reside with, trust and love. I also observed that there was a lot of child on child sexual violence which was not given much attention as children committing sexual act deemed not to have criminal capacity.

I developed a concern about children who commit sexual act with no criminal capacity and were not sent to receive service. What worried me most is that those reported as victims were siblings, neighbours or related to those reported as child perpetrators. Child victims would receive service and child perpetrators were returned home without access to any service and when they go home they repeat the sexual act and come back to the centre again and again. The cycle of abuse was going on and on until the other child reach the criminal capacity age and get to be charged with sexual abuse or rape.

My main concern was that there was no service offered to those children and we could not get to know what happen to them and what led to their abnormal sexual behaviours. I was concerned as an adult, a professional and a mother I was involved in watching children graduating to become offenders while that could have been prevented, as there was no service received, my other concern was that more girls and women were at risk of becoming victims of these perpetrators we were building.

The day in 2013 I saw the cousins below the age of 8 presenting with history of engaging in sexual act arguing in front of me as to who initiated the act, I realised and confirmed that both of them had abnormal sexual behaviour and gained interests in knowing more about abnormal sexual behaviours. In my life I have seen more than 10000 victims of sexual violence and majority of them are women, I have seen child on child sexual violence clients, I have had cases of children abusing each other in the hospital ward, I have had cases of children sexually abusing each other in primary schools, children homes etc. I have seen previously abused children becoming offenders and I concluded that if I do nothing about it, if there is no project that focuses on changing child sexual behaviours, the cycle of sexual and gender base violence will not stop.

Because of the above, I had to start a new project. I feared for my children, I am a mother of two boys, I am a wife at the same time. I thought of my financial responsibilities and parental roles that were going to be compromised. Fortunate enough my husband, my younger sister and my mother supported my initiative. I had to resign and leave my paying job in December 2013 at the age of 37 years and start an organisation that will focus in breaking the cycle of sexual violence likely to be committed against women and children by previously sexually abused, exposed or violated children who did not access all the necessary services.

The above experience gave birth to the establishment of Incema Non-Profit Organization in 2014. It bothered me that as children are most vulnerable and are mostly the victims of sexual violence, if their cases are not reported and dealt with accordingly and if they did not receive all the necessary services, they begin to normalise the abnormal behaviours and they start to act out, repeat the sexual act and therefore the cycle will never stop.

Incema’s focus is to provide psycho social services, prevention and support to children who are sexually acting out to prevent further perpetuation of sexual act and thereby break the cycle of abuse. The service is provided to affected individuals and families. Upon intervention I realised that the children are sexual exposed at home and they experience domestic violence and other related violence at home than Incema launched a #preventionbegin@home campaign.

In year 2020 Incema extended its services to include persons experiencing and affected by domestic violence. Starting a new organisation when there is no income was a hustle, a lot of compromises had to be made. The first step was to partner with TVET collages to get In-service trainees to work in the organisation for a particular period in exchange to work experience. Secondly to give opportunity to unemployed social workers from varsity to volunteer their services, trained and give them an opportunity to gain experience while the organisation benefits from their skills and expertise.

I stared looking for grants and receive the first grant from National Lottery Commission in 2018 after having been operating on family donations and part time consultations I had to do to raise funds. Year 2020 was a blessing that I met Women’s Voice Leadership and Gender links, they believed in Incema. They believed in my concept and my passion, they trusted Incema’s capability to implement psycho-social, prevention and support projects for the benefit of women and girls as well as behavioural change projects for men and boys in order to break the cycle of abuse.

Because of WVL ‘s financial and operational support which includes mentorship and guidance I am very proud to say I am a women with capabilities to change the world. I am proud that I started the very first organisation in KwaZulu Natal that provides services to sexually reactive children in order to change the behaviour as soon as it is identified. I am proud that again I became the first woman in this province to bring the concept of fighting gender based violence at the different angle that promotes access to service, behavioural change and positive parenting. I will do everything in my powers to ensure that Incema services spreads throughout the province, South Africa and internationally.

Having gained all the above experience, my passion has grown and I personally wish to grow academically. I wish to further my studies and do honours, masters and PHD in gender studies to give more focus on how gender norms contributes to the scourge of gender based violence. I have gained so much interest in gender studies, I feel I can contribute into a fight against the scourge of gender based violence, I wish to engage in a research to find the root course and the strategies to eliminate it. If I were to be asked what I wish for I would say funds to sustain Incema project, to expand services to other provinces and to study further and contribute towards change. I believe gender equality begins at home and so as prevention of violence linked to gender inequalities.