Nobs Mwanda
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   South Africa

Nobs Mwanda

Nobs is addressing the root causes of child abuse through an “ecological” model focused on primary prevention on four levels – child, family, community and society – in order for every child to grow…
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This description of Nobs Mwanda's work was prepared when Nobs Mwanda was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Nobs is addressing the root causes of child abuse through an “ecological” model focused on primary prevention on four levels – child, family, community and society – in order for every child to grow up in a safe and caring environment.

The New Idea

South Africa is faced with high levels of child abuse manifested through cases of child neglect, rape, domestic and other forms of related violence, earning it the disheartening nickname “the rape capital of the world”. It is commonly known that this is a very complex problem, with a multitude of underlying causes, especially social and economic. However, most attempts to solve this problem concentrate on dealing with the effects and results of the abuse, which, although necessary, does not solve the underlying problems that cause child abuse in the first place. Realizing that, Nobs created an organization called Community-based Prevention and Empowerment Strategies in South Africa (COPESSA), which uses community engagement and participatory strategies to identify specific social ills that fuel child abuse and thereby develops initiatives to address them.

COPESSA uses an Ecological Model, which deals with child abuse on four levels of attention: primary (making sure abuse does not happen); secondary (early detection and early response to stop further perpetration); tertiary (rehabilitation) and quaternary (care & support with further training for the care-givers). Each main target population in this model are, respectively: the child (at the centre), then the family, then the community and, finally, a the broader level, society at large. Each level therefore involves specific activities and projects that engage both the potential victims and perpetrators, including all stakeholders as part of the solution. Some of the projects that COPESSA has helped the community develop at primary prevention level (to bridge the social divide between men, women and children and provide income generation alternatives for economic empowerment) are: children safe Play Parks, an out-door community gym, a community library, community gardens, brick-making and craft projects, among many others. Each of these responds to specific needs identified within the community (eg. lack of safe spaces for children to play, illiteracy and lack of knowledge on child abuse, unemployment and financial insecurity) and the implementation is done by the beneficiaries themselves with the help of COPESSA. Further, COPESSA offers research, training and awareness programs at primary level; clinical and therapeutic support programs at secondary and tertiary levels and support& further education for the caregivers at quaternary level, which complement the model.

Since COPESSA started operations in 2004 in Soweto, it has engaged with 2,650 direct beneficiaries with primary level community development programs and 3,500 people with secondary and tertiary level programs, and a total of over 15,000 indirect beneficiaries. Nobs has worked with UNICEF and social development specialists from the University of Witwatersrand to develop communication and measurement tools to compile guidelines and best practices from the operation in Soweto and use them as a scaling strategy to other provinces in South Africa facing similar challenges.

The Problem

South Africa is faced with one of the highest levels of child abuse in the world, manifested through cases of child neglect, rape, domestic and other forms of related violence. Many children suffer untold and sometimes irreversible harm at the hands of abuse perpetrators, as cases of child sexual abuse are both becoming more prevalent and increasingly happening to younger children. Print and electronic news abound with stories of children who are brutally raped and maimed.

The 2010/11 statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS) record a total of over 50 000 crimes against children for 2010/11. More than half (52%) of all reported crimes against children were sexual in nature. Unfortunately, in many cases the age of the reported victim is not known. If one accepts the patterns shown where ages are reported, most reported crimes against children are perpetrated against children between the ages of 15 to 17 years (55% of murders, 60% of attempted murders, 71% of assault with grievous bodily harm, 63% of common assault and 40% of sexual offences). However, 61% of the children who endured sexual offences were under the age of 15 years and over a quarter (29%) was between 0 and 10 years. While the reported rates of crimes against children are extremely high, many incidents go unreported. The hidden nature of violence against children arises, among others, from the fact that young children usually lack the capacity to report violence and many others may fear further harm by the perpetrator or may worry that interventions by authorities may make their situation worse.

Independents reports from various CSOs and academic researchers have come to similar and even more daunting conclusions. A report compiled by Solidarity Helping Hand said that while there were about 60 cases of child rape in South Africa every day, more than 88% of child rapes were never reported. This means that about 530 child rapes take place every day: one rape every three minutes. In a survey conducted among 1,500 school children in Soweto, a quarter of all boys interviewed said that jackrolling, a term used in the townships to describe gang rape, was fun. Indeed, another research showed that 26-30% of adolescents reported that their first sexual encounter was forced. If we now look at the statistics from CSOs which serve children, it’s even more appalling: 43% of all cases in which Childline South Africa is involved are those of sexually abused children.

Child abuse occurs across all socio-economic levels, but around the world poverty has been found to be associated with child abuse. Risk factors related to poverty and social inequality, such as income inequality, low economic development, health inequities, and high levels of gender inequality are strongly associated with violence. In South Africa, income inequality – one of the key determinants – is particularly high. Unemployment and poverty affect children both directly and indirectly. For example, high levels of unemployment and poverty can cause family stress and frustration which, in turn, can result in punitive behavior towards children as well as abuse. Overcrowding, which is often associated with poverty, can also place children at risk of violence and, in particular, of sexual abuse. In fact, the overwhelming majority (84%) of rapes where the victims are children are perpetrated by males who are known to the victim. Similarly, the 2005 National Youth Victimization Survey found that 88% of sexual assault victims knew their perpetrator. More specifically, 29% of perpetrators were friends or acquaintances of the victim and 11% were relatives or household members. The 2008 National Youth Lifestyle Study found that 24% of the sexual assaults (including rape) reported by young people took place in the respondent’s home.

Furthermore, inadequate resources, infrastructure and services can contribute to higher levels of violence in communities. In addition, community tolerance of violence socializes children into violent behaviors. This means that not just the family, but the community and society at large are also part of the problem and therefore must also be part of the solution. Nevertheless, even with this understanding, the country’s response to this problem has been mostly given in silos: children are treated after the crime has already occurred, families are not engaged unless the perpetrator is identified, to which the response will de individual and punitive; and, to the full extent, society at large is watching the horror passively and doesn’t see itself as part of the problem or the solution. The reactive and punitive approach leads society to often, and justifiably, call for harsher sentences, more prisons, more laws, and even the castration of abusers, to mention a few, but these measures, necessary as they may be, can be likened to putting “paint over cracks”. This is why the gross majority of the reactive services, including the treatment of victims, are always dealing with the tip of the iceberg and not the root causes of the problem.

The Strategy

In contrast, Nobs created COPESSA to not only respond to the child abuse that occurs, but to develop tailor-made strategies to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. While she recognizes counseling and medical support as necessary ameliorative measures, she also fully appreciates their limitation in creating generations that will not normalize abuse and violence. This is why COPESSA was created based on the assumption that prevention is still better than cure. Unlike many medical conditions, which are usually caused by single and identifiable agent, child abuse and violence are social ills that are multi-causal. Consequently, COPESSA’s approach considers the multiple root causes in coming up with multi-pronged solutions.

In order to do this, COPESSA has pioneered the practical application of the ‘Ecological Model’, theorized in the late 1970s by an American developmental psychologist named Urie Bronfenbrenner, in South Africa both its analysis and understanding of the root causes of this social ill and the solutions to it. The ecological model considers the complex interplay between individuals and their spheres of influence (or the places they inhabit) at multiple levels: individual, relationship, community and society throughout their lifetime. The theory is also useful because it can combine an understanding of the historical and social factors of a particular society with the various other factors influencing a child’s life and thus promote an understanding of the factors that increase vulnerability in each of the different spaces. This then leads to the identification of the protective factors which interact with these risk factors to reduce the likelihood of adverse outcomes for a child and enhance the child’s well-being. In the South African context, Nobs has identified that these include: family support, cohesion and monitoring; school support and involvement in after-school activities; strong attachment bonds between parents and children, stable family units; availability of childcare facilities; social support in the community; pro-social attitudes; high bonding to school; high self-esteem; internal locus of control; healthy communication patterns and mentoring adult relationships.

COPESSA came into being after identifying these necessary protective measures through a series of consultative ‘indabas’, led by a group of women called iSililo, which was formed in 2002 in response to the brutal rape of 5-month-old ‘baby Tshepang,’ who was disemboweled as a result of the rape and had to undergo several corrective surgical interventions. The focus of these gatherings was to concentrate on the big picture, and not just the child. This is when Nobs applied the Ecological Model theory to populate each of the levels of influence (the child, the family, the community and society) with a set of strategies which would, as an ensemble, create the conditions to prevent child abuse and violence from taking place. The strategies were designed based on three simple principles: (1) identifying what predisposes children to abuse; (2) what are the gifts and talents that the community already had; and (3) matching the two to create a safe and caring community for children.

First, at the Child level, COPESSA developed a series of strategies to guarantee that every child in the community can develop in safety, with spaces to play and moments to express themselves and talk about their feelings. This is done, among other initiatives, by building Play Parks in the communities where children can play and interact, offering a space for positive socialization, free of violence. This is tied to professional counseling for the child, performed by social workers, psychologists and medical personnel, who help identify the predisposition of the child to suffer abuse, but also will diagnose the occurrence of the abuse and follow the necessary measure to report it and refer to legal services and other CSOs which address exclusively the treatment of victims. One of the ways in which early identification of cases, as well as high-risk cases is done, is through a special facility which uses play therapy, with CCTV monitoring and professional therapists, to allow children to speak out about what there are feeling and experiencing at home, at school and in the community through the language of play.

Secondly, at the Family level, COPESSA works mostly by engaging women in income-generating and employment opportunities for them to build greater economic independence. These include, among others: (1) craft projects, which are housed within the Play Parks so that they have a multiple role of capacity development for the community; (2) group therapy for mothers; (3) parenting skills workshops; (4) skills development; (5) embroidery project, for the production of promotional items and branding; (6) a small brick-making factory, which employs women formally; (7) food gardens and vegetable tunnels, which supply food for the families, reducing their household spending, but also increases the amount of nutrients provided to the children.

Thirdly, at the Community level, Nobs’ objective is to create incentives for people to interact more positively, increasing the offers for community members to commit to a better and more positive future together. On the wellbeing front, COPESSA created outdoor gyms, where the community can come together and practice exercises, as well as sports, music and arts, so that they relate in a healthier manner. It is also the entry point for COPESSA to run regular community talks on subjects that help create awareness about child abuse and violence – and related themes – so that people understand that it takes the entire community’s commitment and action to change this situation. Nobs thereby developed a specific calendar of activities to raise awareness, focused on dates that represent national milestones in the field, such as Human Rights Week, Children Protection Week, National Reconciliation Day, and so on. Complimentary strategies for the community include: mini-libraries, homework supervision for children and youth, sessions of outdoor indigenous games and a Skate Park for youth, used to channel a lot of their energy in a more positive manner, which is currently under construction.

Finally, at the Society level, Nobs has developed a series of communication strategies, some in partnership with famous celebrities such as singer Sibongile Khumalo, where women can speak up publicly about child abuse, share their stories of losses in order to sensitize public opinion, and challenge prejudicial cultural practices such as ‘ukuthwalwa ’ – forceful marriage of young girls, ‘ukuhlolwa kwamantombazana’ – virginity testing of girls, to mention a few. Nobs also works with the local Police Services (SAPS) in order to train police officers to understand the complexity of child abuse and be able to take the cases that come in seriously and address them adequately. Understanding that other, more reactive approaches are allies and not competitors, she is also networking with other CSOs which support children victims, such as the Medical Legal Center and the Teddy Bear Clinic, to cross-pollinize ideas and work more collaboratively. She has also been involved in some review processes of the laws pertaining to child abuse & neglect, which evolve as societies evolve.

So far, COPESSA has engaged more than 15,000 people in communities, with 2,650 direct beneficiaries at the primary levels of attentions and another 3,500 people at the secondary and tertiary levels. Because preventive measures are long-term and take more time to yield tangible results – and also due to the complexity of the problem – it is hard to speculate on how each single initiative has prevented or reduced cases of violence, therefore, Nobs is more concerned about having enough effective strategies in place in each of the levels of the Ecological Model working together as a system, as opposed to a core strategy that doesn’t operate on all four levels at a time. This means that many of the behavioral changes are starting to happen in the community setting, in the family relations and in the structures that influence children, like the schools. Thereby, since the program is in place, the level of understanding and knowledge of the community about this issue has increased, and so has the quality of its interaction with children and their wellbeing. Nobs is now working with UNICEF and social development specialists from University of Witwatersrand to develop a communication tool for identifying specific underlying problems that perpetrate child abuse called Community for Development (C4D). This also includes a measuring effectiveness study of COPESSA’s impact to date, which is currently being assessed by an independent researcher. Nobs’ medium term plans are to compile guidelines and best practices from the operation in Soweto and use them as a scaling strategy to other provinces in South Africa facing similar challenges. Further, her Play Parks have been taken on by the Gauteng province City Parks as a strategy they want to replicate in all municipal parks.

The Person

Nobs was born in rural South Africa in a large family of seven children. There was a strong community sense and a child she grew up knowing that all adults were parents and had a right to discipline or call her to order if she was erring. Hence, she always felt relatively safe even in the absence of her parents. They were public servants and had a modest income and even though they were a large family, they never lacked anything. Nobs and her siblings contributed to the family wealth through farming and consequently never had to rely on hand-outs. This instilled in her a good work ethics and a focus on results. At the time, Bantu Education system was in place under the Apartheid regime, and it did not give black South African a good foundation for them to thrive while growing up. Later, when Nobs was at tertiary level, she had to work doubly hard to compete with her white peers. The good work ethics which had been instilled at a young age made it possible for her to grow and she soon realized that limitations were indeed self-imposed.

This way, she managed to graduate as a medical doctor from the prestigious Wits Medical School. When she was specializing in pediatrics (she always had a strong connection to children and felt compelled by their honesty) she became pregnant and couldn’t further her studies. Several years later she became the senior house officer at the Transvaal Memorial Institute Hospital, a white-only hospital at the time, which, despite the challenges, exposed her to the high-quality service they were providing and made her realize, even more, the disparities with the public service provided for the majority of black South Africans. There she learned a lot about working with children and later applied this knowledge when working for public health clinics in Soweto.

At the time, there were not formalized institutions dealing with child abuse in the medical system, so she decided to start a center on her own, which was attached to the government, to repons to child abuse with examination and counseling. She quickly realized that many of the cases which were brought to her had an originating factor in the family relationships, where mothers played a central role, and were themselves, victims of violence. She speculated that this could be one of the causes of child abuse, and o once she asked a mother: “What if I helped you, would you help your child?” The resounding “yes” was the indicating that she was right. She then started helping the mothers as well but quickly suffered resistance form the government which didn’t understand why their resources were being used also for adults and not only for the children. They were unable to see the broader picture and, frustrated, Nobs left because she couldn’t pretend she wasn’t seeing the real problem. After a few years in private practice, the issue once gain came to her encounter, in a terrible manner: in 2002, the case of a 5-months baby, named Tshepang, which was disemboweled after being raped, shocked the country. This is when Nobs decided enough was enough. She left private practice and organized a campaign to raise awareness about the issue and organized a series of consultative “indabas” (in-depth gatherings) with women from the community. This led to the foundation, in 2004, of COPESSA, where she was determined to give way to the vision she had had during public practice, that child abuse would only be solved through a model that involved all levels which played a role in causing the problem in the first place.

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