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One of South Africa's youngest victims of rape turned two this week. On Thursday, 18 months after the ordeal that happened when the little girl was just five months old, foster mom Claudia Ford threw a small party for Thandiwe, her miracle child, at their home in Melville, Johannesburg.
The cute, waif-like girl in the orange top and pink shoes was flanked by Ford and three elder siblings as she prepared to blow out the candles and cut the cake. Thandiwe (not her real name) appeared a little bewildered by the attention she was receiving.
Ford, clutching Thandiwe to her bosom in front of the pink birthday cake, told the gathering that all children were special but "she is a little extra special and we are here to celebrate the joy she has given us".
Although Ford, a trained midwife and lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, has three grown-up sons, she readily volunteered to become Thandiwe's foster mother a week after the horrific incident in December 2001.
When police found Thandiwe at the seedy hotel in downtown Johannesburg, she had been gang-raped, cut open with a bottle and left to bleed on a urine-stained bed. Her biological mother was reportedly drunk at the scene and subsequently disappeared after Thandiwe was taken to Johannesburg Hospital.
Two men were arrested at the time but charges against them did not come before a court. "A little baby is not going to be able to give evidence," Ford said.
Ford - whose sons are aged 28, 25 and 16 - said she immediately fell in love with the little girl who was sleeping and sucking her tiny thumb when she visited friends who were treating the baby at the hospital.
"I fell in love with her the moment I set eyes on her," she said.
Thandiwe has had at least three operations to repair damage caused during the attack and Ford said she had to draw on mothering skills she had last used more than a decade ago. However, raising a child who had been so brutally traumatised had brought its own share of heartache, Ford said. One of the most painful memories during the child's recovery was her using a tiny colostomy bag, something Ford was familiar with while nursing women in childbirth. This time though, it was different - and extremely painful.
"I cried a lot. It was the practical side that forced me to confront what had happened to her. When we were playing or I was singing her lullabys, I could hide from the truth. But I had to rub olive oil and comfrey tea on her little private parts every day. That killed me, because there was no escaping how she had got those terrible injuries," Ford said.
She added that tears would stream down her face every time she would change the child's colostomy bag as it was a painful process. "I couldn't do it without hurting her and that was unbearable."
There's no doubt that Thandiwe is the pride and joy - and the main focus - of the Ford family. Big brother Juma, a student at Wits university, said Thandiwe had brought them so much of joy.
"It's so cool to have a sister because when the guys come home they're gonna have to go through so many tests enforced by the three of us," he joked.
On Thursday, Ford revealed that an adoption hearing for Thandiwe would take place in August. "It's going to take place much sooner than we anticipated and I am holding thumbs," she said.
She also announced that the Princess Trust, an organisation set up to raise funds and awareness of child sexual abuse, would contribute to organisations and individuals involved in the field, including a R20 000 donation to Women and Men Against Child Abuse.
"In honour of my very special little daughter, her courage and innocence, the ordeal she has endured and in condemnation of crime, I have founded the trust. We cry out against the sexual assault of young children as an unacceptable form of oppression against the future and wealth of our societies," Ford said.
The trust will also be handing a cheque of R20 000 to the Child Protection Unit in Braamfontein because of the work they are doing in fighting sexual abuse of children.
Ford said trustees include attorney Josie Bright, businessperson Debby Edelestein, HIV/Aids activist Gail Johnson and broadcasting personality Sandy Ngema.
Nedbank South Africa
Branch Code 135705
Account Number 11357025777