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‘We need to educate parents to be parents’: Dr Tasneemah Cornelissen-Nordien
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 05/11/2020

​​​Too much responsibility is placed on the shoulders of youngsters by expecting them to be the whistle blowers of child sexual abuse. In an ideal world, it shouldn't even be necessary to educate them about how to scream and run away if they find themselves in uncomfortable, threatening situations. Preventative education and intervention strategies should much rather be geared towards parents, caregivers and other adults, to make them acutely aware of their roles and responsibilities as protectors and guardians of children.

“It's unfair to expect children to protect themselves," says Dr Tasneemah Cornelissen-Nordien of the Department of Social Work at Stellenbosch University, as she lifts her three-year old onto her lap at her home in Paarl, in the midst of our online interview.

“In any case, children don't tell, even if you tell them to tell. That's why it's very hard to protect them. That's why we need to focus on educating adults," she adds. “Children should be playing, not be needing intervention or taught to run to someone or to tell someone that something bad is happening."

As part of her recent PhD in Social Work, Dr Cornelissen-Nordien focused on of empowerment services that are offered by non-profit organisations in the Western Cape working with sexually abused children. Her interviews with role players yet again emphasised how increasingly great the need for such services are, how understaffed and under resourced these organisations are, and how difficult logistically and financially it often is for caregivers to prioritise the use of such services for young victims.

“We need more services, more social workers," she believes. 

Our conversation takes place in the same week that two toddlers, aged three and four, disappeared in broad daylight in Wellington, a few kilometres from Dr Cornelissen-Nordien's home in Paarl. They were playing outside while their caregiver was reportedly taking an afternoon nap.

“It's the adults in their world, the ones supposed to protect them, who fail our children," she emphasises again and again. “We need safe spaces for our children. Instead, they have gangsters running through their playground. We fail our children miserably if we think that putting burglar bars on classroom windows will protect them. All that happens is that their playgrounds get fenced in and get smaller."

“If I could dream, my focus would be on educating parents to be parents. Not good parents, just parents. To help them understand that their most important job in the world is to provide a safe space for their child. I'd like to take things a step further, by educating adults about their responsibility towards protecting children. That's what breaks the cycle of abuse."

She says that the sexual abuse of children is a worldwide problem but especially prevalent and worrying in South Africa because of its unique socio-economic conditions.

“It's not about sexual pleasure, but about exerting power, even if it is against the most vulnerable," explains Dr Cornelissen-Nordien.

Her research among service providers in the Western Cape shows that despite the high volume of media attention it gets, child trafficking and the snatching of children off the streets by strangers are extremely rare occurrences. The sexual abuse of children, on the other hand, is “definitely underreported, often because the scars cannot be seen."

The perpetrators are often people that “children have known their whole lives."

“It is always, always people known to them, people that they trust, they have known their whole lives. It's the uncle, the aunt, older brother, the imam, the priest, all people that children are supposed to trust, they are all potentially guilty of sexually abusing children," says the mother of two young children, who admits that she might for this reason be an overprotective parent.  

Research has found that sexual abuse is often reactive in nature, with those who were treated as such when they were young more often than not themselves becoming the abusers.

“At some point, these abusers were also children. What happened in their lives? It's a vicious circle, because somewhere an adult had failed them, and now they are just doing what they have learnt. I am not making excuses for them, yet know that behaviour is learnt. Yes, there are gentlemen and women who rise up beyond their circumstances and do not become reactive abusers. But somewhere, somehow the system failed them on a micro and macro level, in many ways. Children live in homes where they see things that they are not supposed to seen. Children are told to leave home and go outside, to play outside unsupervised.

She is particularly worried about how adolescents growing up in some communities grow up neglected when it comes to support and supervision from their parents or caregivers.

“We live in an illusion if we think adolescent children do not need supervision. They are probably more in need of it, and often get into situations that lead to sexual abuse."

She remembers some of the cases she had to handle while she was working in the court system, and the teenage girls she would have to offer court support services to who were raped.

“Some were at shebeens at 2 o'clock at night. What are you doing there at that time of night? Where are your parents? Surely, your caregivers, somebody needs to be worried if a child is not home that time of night and go out to look for them!"

It's a difficult world Dr Cornelissen-Nordien finds herself in, but she says that as students social workers are taught to take their experiences back to the classroom or office, to discuss it and how to deal with it.

“We get to engage with the true reality of what's happening in South Africa."

For the past 11 years, Dr Cornelissen-Nordien​ has been a lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Stellenbosch University. Previously, she worked at organisations such as Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN), Big Brothers Big Sisters South Africa and Youth Outreach.

She grew up in Alra Park near Nigel, and was a first generation student at Stellenbosch University who finished her BA in Social Work in 2001.

The practical side of the work, to which students are already exposed to from their first year, immediately appealed to her.

As an aside, she adds that “at that time, things were not as bad as it is today."

“As a student, the realisation grew in me that there are people with greater issues than me, and I am in a position to help, to make a difference in their lives. That absolute satisfaction that I always felt when I was done working with working with a client, even if I knew there was still a report to be written afterwards."

In between working in the field for a number of years, she completed a MA at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden thanks to an exchange programme. She joined her alma mater as lecturer in 2011, and in 2019 received her PhD, under supervision of her mentor Prof Sulina Green.

These days she is responsible for teaching students about the professional relationship between clients and social workers, about social work group work, intervention with youth. She also coordinates and implements practice the education programme for fourth years.

“I've never felt the need to find satisfaction outside out of my work and to do volunteer work, for instance. I am always fulfilled. My job is about helping people."

Have you ever been curious about the person behind the research and what makes them tick? For the next few weeks, we will introduce you to some of SU`s researchers who`s work is featured in the latest edition of Research at Stellenbosch University.