When a child first reveals that they were sexually abused, how they are treated matters. In fact, it could dictate the rest of their lives.
Jackie Branfield, who grew up in a very poor family in Zimbabwe, knows this truth better than most. “My father died, and I was 10 years old, and one of his friends came to comfort my mother. And she didn’t want his comfort, so you can imagine," she said.
Now an advocate for the next generation of children, Branfield puts special emphasis on her very first interaction with each new victim. “You take her or his little hands, you look in their eyes, and you say it wasn’t your fault,” she explained. “It’s not your fault.”
Branfield lives in South Africa now, but stories like hers are widespread. About one in 10 girls younger than 20 have been forced to commit sexual acts against their will, according to the 2014 UNICEF study "Hidden in Plain Sight." Driven “mad” by this silent pandemic and the ambivalence shown toward victims, Branfield went on to start the human rights group Operation Bobbi Bear in Amanzimtoti, South Africa. There, a child is said to be raped every three minutes.
"Bobbi Bear" is also the name of an actual stuffed bear, a unique yet simple communication tool used by Branfield to bridge language barriers — there are 11 official tongues in South Africa. The stuffed animal also makes it easier for kids whose shame or fears may otherwise prevent them from reporting their assaults to more easily tell their stories. The bears put power back in the hands of the abused, allowing them to illustrate the evil they faced on an otherwise ordinary childhood object.
After Organization Bobbi Bear is informed of an assault, a team of two responders is dispatched to act as a filter between police and the victim. They demand a safe place for a child to tell their story, and offer them something to eat and drink, as well as art supplies. “You immediately diffuse the child and get them drawing,” Branfield says. “Now they might draw a house or a school or something. It all means something.”
When responders take out two different-colored bears, they tell the victim: One is mine, and one is yours. After the child picks their bear, they are given a permanent marker, a couple of adhesive bandages, and a task: Show us what happened.
Since a bandage over the mouth can mean a number of things, non-leading questions are then used to help determine what happened. “[It] can mean I don’t want to talk anymore, I’ve told this story 27 times, and everybody’s going, ‘Oh my god, I don’t believe it,’” Branfield explains. “It could mean he said he’d kill me if I talked. Or it could mean that a penis went in the mouth.”
The bear is then stored in an evidence bag, where it can later be used in a court of law. But the work of Operation Bobbi Bear doesn’t stop there; the organization continues to provide support for the victim in the months or even years needed to achieve justice through the legal system.
Operation Bobbi Bear strives to ensure sexual assaults are reported within 24 hours. That’s because KwaZulu-Natal province, where the organization is located, also has the highest HIV infection rate in the world, leaving victims at a disproportionate risk of contracting the virus. Each victim who is believed to have been exposed to HIV is provided with post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), medications which, when started within three days of exposure, can stop the virus.
“The people behind Operation Bobbi Bear are actively listening to children and giving them the necessary tools to talk about something that is incredibly difficult,” Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi told MSNBC. “Their unique approach helps make a traumatic experience easier to bear.”
Lakshmi recently revealed in her memoir Love, Loss And What We Ate that she was sexually abused as a child. She recalls waking up one night with the hand of her former stepfather’s relative in her underpants, unsure of how many times it may have happened before. After disclosing her assault, her mother sent her on a plane from Queens, New York, to Madras, India. Now, she’s helping others by telling her story.
“I think childhood sexual abuse is an important issue that needs to be discussed more openly,” she says. “Tragically, it happens all over the world, from India to Africa, and even here in our very own backyards — yet it remains an issue that is constantly overlooked.”
'Dare to Bear'
As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Lakshmi has teamed up with Alicia Keys’ charity Keep a Child Alive for the #DaretoBear campaign, which encourages people to use social media to publicly stand up for the health and safety of sexually abused children and contribute funds to support Bobbi Bear.
“Child sexual abuse is unimaginable. Yet it does happen, more often than you’d think,” Keys, a Grammy Award-winner and human rights advocate, told MSNBC. “Actually, it happens every single day, and we need to do something about it. That's why I stand with Keep a Child Alive and dare to bear witness to this issue.”
Among the many who’ve answered Keys’ call so far is Chaz Dean, creator of WEN Hair and Body Care, who spent a week matching donations to KCA’s campaign. His reason? No child should live in fear.
"We are all put on this Earth to seek out our own individuality, and any act that threatens this freedom has the influence to destroy a child's true, unique spirit,” the hairstylist says. “It creates negativity in a world where love, kindness, and humanity should prevail."
In spite of all of the horrors that Branfield bears witness to on a regular basis, she still believes the world will overcome this tragedy.
“It carries its toll. But when I speak for my team and myself, it’s passion, it’s the unfairness, it’s getting justice for that child. And yes, you do sleep very well at night, purely because you’re too exhausted to do anything else,” she said. “And it is a nice feeling, because even on a bad day, Bobbi Bear is such a unique, and practical, and simple organization, that you are guaranteed to help a child a day.”