Durban — A Durban-based child and youth care practitioner has shared how growing up in a family environment with gender-based violence had robbed her of a chance to learn about sex from her mother. And nearly destroyed her future.
Zonke Shazi-Hlongwane, CEO of the non-governmental organisation Ikusasa Ngelami, grew up witnessing her father beating up her mother at their home in Inanda, north of Durban, from the age of 7.
“It was very hard, as my mother would be beaten to a point where she would not be able to care for me and my siblings,” she revealed.
Shazi-Hlongwane said at the time there was no a culture of inviting social workers to intervene.
She and her younger sibling were sent to live with relatives from the time she was 9, “while my mother was running around suffering from beatings”.
“At the age of 13, when I was supposed to return home, my mom passed away from a stroke; I am not sure whether it was linked to the beatings.
“As a teenager growing up without a mother, I was at the stage where I needed her, to ask what I should do when I started my periods, and what liking a boy meant,” she said.
Shazi-Hlongwane, who holds an Honours degree in child and youth care, said without her mother present to guide her on sex-related issues, she was unable to have a normal teenagehood.
“I lived a life where I avoided everything and I was not able to do things other teenagers did,” she said.
Psychologically, she developed a “very negative” world view where “I saw the world as a very unsafe place”.
“I started having challenges at school, moving from being an A learner to just making it, and I got discouraged.
“I had a world-view where I operated from a primitive mind of fearing to do things; not that I did not want to do things.”
She said after completing Grade 12, she was forced to return to her family home “where there was no more a mother”. She then met her now husband, Agiza Hlongwane.
“When I met Agiza, I did not even think that there was something called pregnancy.
“I only thought to myself that this was the opportunity to have a boyfriend, which I had been deprived of for a long time. I went into this relationship blindly, then I fell pregnant before I even enrolled at tertiary.
“It was then that I realised that when teenagers fall in love, they don’t consider pregnancy – they go quickly to the boyfriend stage, without the possibility of getting pregnant crossing their minds,” she said.
Shazi-Hlongwane said it was her experience of growing up without a mother to guide and advise her about sex, that inspired her to start a programme to help teenagers.
“I said, if you become sexually active, do you even stop to think that you can fall pregnant or do you pretend it does not even exist, and just do what you want to do as a teenager?
“As much as I had completed my matric and already turned 18, it’s exactly the same thing that other teenagers do.
“Most teenagers say we don’t even think about it, it’s a spur-of-the-moment choice because they are excited to have a boyfriend, which they have been looking for for a long time.”
She said there were many young girls who said “I’m ready for sex”.
“She would say she is ready, without being interrogated about it and unpacking it. She would act on the spur of the moment, and for short-term satisfaction or self-gratification.
“But when you talk about the future ... for example, there was a time where I was speaking to matric pupils, then I got call after call from pupils who said ‘Mom Zonke, I never looked at it that way’.
“I asked them, would it be so bad to wait or even take precautions? Because, guys, you are wasting your lives even before going to university. And then they said they never considered that,” said Shazi-Hlongwane.
She added that instead of getting sex talks from their parents, they would be scolded “and not given an option of thinking about it and having an attitude of saying ‘I actually can take care of myself’.”
She said girl children should be taught to say “no” because they can visualise the future, not because they are scared of being reprimanded.
“It should not be out of fear but it should be informed, they should have information and know that when they say ‘no’ it is because they’re not ready.” When they do decide to have sex it should be knowing, “I have precautions because I have looked at every angle and I am ready”.
When asked what should happen to a man who has impregnated an underage girl through rape or statutory rape, but who is employed and prepared to help raise the baby, Shazi-Hlongwane said: “A crime is a crime”.
“To keep a perpetrator out of prison because he is looking after a child would lead to where this would no longer be treated as a crime.
“He should face the crime. Most parents would keep quiet because the perpetrator is a breadwinner, but that would mean we are now forming a new culture where people would sleep with young girls who are not ready for sex.
“If you sleep with a young girl, you deserve to go to jail,” said Shazi-Hlongwane.
She formed Ikusasa Ngelami (meaning “the future is mine”) in 2013 as a church-based youth development programme, soon after enrolling at the Durban University of Technology to study towards an Honours degree in child and youth care studies.
“We first convinced girls that a boy can be a friend without him appreciating your beauty.
“We first interrogated boys and girls about what made them crazy about the opposite sex ‘to an extent that you will put your life at risk of HIV and unnecessary pregnancy’.
“In our first group, no one fell pregnant and many of them got married and are now working.
“After I had graduated, I then turned the group into an organisation,” she said.