Amplifying children’s voices, advocating for their protection and agency, and representing them in a way that is fair and eliminates historic injustices are all parts of the important groundwork South Africa needs to fine‑tune to ensure children’s rights in every respect.
Since the advent of democracy, the country has made significant strides when it comes to recognising and attaining the rights of the most vulnerable. But according to Dr Neziswa Titi, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Children’s Institute (CI), there’s still much work to be done.
“It is evident that children remain invisible.”
“It is evident that children remain invisible. But even more concerning are the historic, problematic writings on black children, and how these outdated discourses continue to inform how black children are understood, misrepresented and misinterpreted,” said Dr Titi.
“This is a problem for me, and is what makes it extremely important for me to insert my voice where theorisations on African children take place.”
Titi, who was recently named one of Mail & Guardian’s (M&G) 200 Young South Africans for 2021, joined the CI in January 2020. Thankfully, she experienced a brief bit of office life and colleague camaraderie before the COVID‑19 pandemic plunged the country and the world into chaos.
Titi specialises in decolonial frameworks, child‑centric methodologies, child sexual violence and related trauma, and mental health. Her work focuses on developing responsive services for children and families, and on the intersections of violence against women and children.
As part of the UCT News Women’s Month feature, we caught up with Titi for more on her inspiring work and what it means to be recognised as one of the country’s frontrunners for change.
Helping South African children
Primarily, Titi said, her role contributes to child protection, law reform, child‑rights advocacy, and youth-participatory programmes. As part of her work, in 2020, and together with fellow CI researcher Lucy Jamieson and the institute’s external partners, she prepared a group of youth from around the country to attend parliamentary hearings on the Children’s Amendment Bill. Part of the preparation included facilitating multiple workshops to adequately prepare children on how best to understand the bill. This also included a series of training sessions that, among other things, focused on how children could respond to the laws, write their own submissions to Parliament, and lobby for support.
“Through my work, I always aim to influence thinking into appropriate methodologies and frameworks where the objective is to help South Africa’s children and the communities they come from,” she said.
Titi said she felt a great deal of accomplishment when President Cyril Ramaphosa recently announced that caregivers would be eligible for the special COVID‑19 Social Relief of Distress Grant. She had been actively involved in the CI’s Child Support Grant increase campaign, which involved lobbying government to address mounting poverty and inequality caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Making a difference
Since Titi considers her line of work “incredibly rewarding”, she said, it’s impossible to pinpoint which aspect of it brings her the most joy.
However, she pointed out, successfully finalising a project – and knowing that it was led by children, the very audience that it was intended for, and that their voices were adequately represented – brings her a feeling of indescribable fulfilment. And this feeling rang true when her 15‑year‑old niece kissed the TV screen after she delivered commentary on a child abuse case during a news bulletin recently.
“It’s important that my work resonates with those who it’s meant to impact.”
“For me, that was it. It’s important that my work resonates with those who it’s meant to impact, like my niece, South African families, and the millions of young people out there. I never want to misrepresent my community. This is how I will continue to make a difference in society,” she said.
Researcher and leader
On the research front, two projects are keeping this dynamic academic awake at night, and both focus on the intersections of violence. The first project, carried out in partnership with Mosaic, a non-profit organisation dedicated to addressing gendered social norms, is titled “Understanding the intersections of violence against women and violence against children in two South African communities in the Western Cape”. Her second project, executed in partnership with Masimanyane Women’s Right’s International, an international advocacy and empowerment organisation, is titled “Closing the gap in services that respond to violence against women and violence against children”. The latter is only in its early stages of development, but aims to understand what communities need with regards to service delivery. The study contains questions around contextually, culturally and socially relevant interventions.
Titi wears a range of other hats as well. As part of her social responsiveness work, she holds a leadership role on the South African National Child Rights Coalition, and also serves on the editorial advisory committee for the 2021 South African Child Gauge.
It doesn’t end there: she is the vice‑chairperson of the Psychological Society of South Africa’s Division of Research and Methodology; and on the international front, she mentors young academics through the iBali (story) Network, which comprises a network of experts who seek to democratise knowledge through creative storytelling with youth who are excluded from learning in urban African schools. She’s also a member of the Canadian Child Rights Partnership, where she contributes to the conceptualisation of theoretical frameworks.
“I am very conscious of my background [and] deliberate about decolonial thinking and Afrocentricity, which is wanting for Africans what they want for themselves. It’s important that I always try to reflect that in my work and research projects,” she said.
A national recognition
Being recognised by the M&G as one of the country’s most eminent and accomplished young people is a “serious accolade”, Titi added.
“Making this list in the face of a pandemic, joining the CI and finalising my doctorate all in one year was truly affirming,” she said. “The fact that it was acknowledged that I am not just a young professional, but a seasoned one, means a lot – especially given the struggles black women face in academia.”
“Making this list also means that my voice is trusted, and that I should use it responsibly.”
But the recognition comes with an additional responsibility. It has reinforced her commitment to do even more to support children and their parents or caregivers in dealing effectively with trauma, and to make their voices heard.
“Making this list also means that my voice is trusted, and that I should use it responsibly in the spaces and roles that I occupy,” Titi said.
Despite her crowded schedule, Titi said making time to relax and unwind is important, especially for her physical, spiritual and mental well-being.
So when she’s not heavily engaged in her work, you’ll find her leading several social responsiveness projects in her church. But since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s enjoyed time in nature – either at the beach or searching for beautiful flowers with which to decorate her home office.
“There’s so much more to life than work. Take time out to sing your lungs out and dance to nothing at all; this does wonders for the soul,” Titi said.
To women in the campus community and beyond, Titi said: just be kind, compete less and start being deliberate about loving each other.
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