A courageous person is someone who, despite their fears, faces adversity head on. As Clinical Director of The Teddy Bear Foundation in Johannesburg, a multi-disciplinary facility for abused and neglected children, Dr Shaheda Omar always displays immense courage, commiseration and resilience, even when confronted by the most heart-shattering cases. Working with abused children is by no means an easy feat, however, this sentient 61-year-old lives by the principle that by treating each child as your own, it facilitates their healing and helps break the cycle of violence.
Born in Lichtenburg in the North West Province, and having grown up in the densely populated suburb of Ferreirasdorp in Johannesburg’s CBD, Shaheda loves the exuberance of the city. She reminisces about the invaluable kinship, care, generosity and kindness in the inner-city, where neighbours always looked out for each other. It was a place that defined the true spirit of Ubuntu. Despite growing up without material luxuries, Shaheda found that social and emotional comforts were more meaningful, and helped shape her into who she is today. This upbringing taught her to “love people and not things, and use things and not people.”
She attended Ferreirastown Primary School and completed her matric at Roodepoort Indian High School, which was a politically active institution during the Apartheid era. Shaheda had the fortune of being educated by anti-Apartheid activist Ahmed Timol, who prescribed to the students that education was their passport to a better future. He, along with two of her other teachers, were arrested and detained for their role in the struggle during which Timol passed away in 1971 while in police custody.
To get to school each morning, Shaheda would walk 30-40 minutes to Fordsburg, take a 45-minute train from there to Roodepoort, where she and her school mates would then walk another 25 minutes through unsafe areas to reach their destination. Her school lacked many resources and had no sporting facilities, play area or library. She encountered an inspiring librarian who introduced her to books, reading and literature. Eagerly wanting to read, but not having any money to buy books, Shaheda would walk the long distance to the closest library in Fordsburg to fulfill her literary quests. Experiencing these deprivations, as well as the Group Areas Act and separate education systems for people of colour, made Shaheda determined to improve her situation. It amplified her thirst for knowledge, and made her realise that “education is her greatest weapon.”
Shaheda has since built a rather impressive resume upon the foundation of those words, achieving both a Bachelor of Arts degree and Honours in Social Work through UNISA. She has also attained diplomas in Medical Technology, Marriage Guidance and Counseling, as well as Sexual Abuse Evaluation. She then went on to complete her Masters in Mental Health and PhD in Childhood Sexual Abuse at the University of Johannesburg. Many of her research articles have been published in the academic sphere and she’s done presentations at national and international conferences on the subject of child abuse. While she considered herself to be reserved while growing up, Shaheda overcame the inferiority complex infringed on her by the inequitable laws of Apartheid through studying and working. She sought courage in having an impact on changing things around her. “When you continue doing things in the same way, nothing will happen. But if you confront your challenges and do things differently, amazing things will happen.”
Islam is an integral part of her daily life, noting that she is broadly grateful to Allah (‘God’ in Arabic) for every mercy and blessing. She cannot start or end her day without the remembrance of her Creator. Shaheda’s spiritual connection to Allah provides her with the inner strength and fortitude essential to endure the traumatic and stressful nature of her work. This type of anguish could mentally, emotionally and psychologically reduce one, but prayer (reading holy scriptures and Quranic verses) is the driving force that invigorates her and gives her the conviction to power on, regardless of what she’s experienced.
Her professional journey began counseling children at schools and working with HIV/AIDS patients. Initially, she was overwhelmed by working with child abuse cases, however she returned to the field once her own four children were grown up, and once she had more professional and life experience under her belt. She was headhunted by Childline, where she counseled the elderly and adolescents for three years. The Teddy Bear Clinic approached her thereafter, and she accepted the position which has since allowed her to grow and assist many victims of child abuse and their families. Shaheda wrote up a diversion programme for young sex offenders and children who sexually abuse other children. She also recruited volunteers, as well as wrote and developed training material, and coached counsellors in South Africa and other African countries. Shaheda chooses to impart her invaluable knowledge and experience to empower others, in hope of reaching the goal – ‘Child Abuse No More’. She wrote a court preparation programme for abused children and their parents, compiled a school outreach programme and published a book regarding the issue of young sex offenders. We also commend Shaheda for being instrumental in changing the sexual offences legislation and policy in parliament.
She believes “Reputation is precious but character is priceless.” Shaheda says that healing children is the greatest reward and one can never stand as tall as when you yield to help a child in need. She is passionate about developing programmes enabling inclusion for children from marginalised backgrounds, including those with special needs and the historically disadvantaged. She is currently trying to capacitate people living in rural areas on identifying, managing and reporting child abuse. Other than her demanding day job, Shaheda also sits on different organisational boards and offers her time, counsel and input outside office hours, which often extends into nights and weekends.
During her 35 years as a philanthropist and social worker, Shaheda has worked with various organisations including the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP) in Limpopo, a child abuse facility in Rustenburg, a paralegal resource centre in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, as well as abused children as far as Namibia. Her team also deals with many cases of gender-based violence and sexual violence in schools around Diepsloot, Johannesburg.
One of the major challenges she’s faced is having limited resources; human and financial. She’s been turned away from funding and encountered people who were indifferent to her cause. Witnessing destitute victims who didn’t have any money to access resources was a revelation for her to reach out and meet their needs. She sacrifices her time, effort and personal responsibilities to lend emotional and psycho-social support to victims. An evaluation of the positive changes she is able to make in the lives of children has fueled her passion to continue her philanthropic pursuits.
Dr. Omar is grateful for all the small mercies and achievements in her work domain, as these are the building blocks that culminate into something big. She is particularly gratified by the success of the innovative programmes used to help abused children including drama, art and music therapy, and also K9 (dog) therapy to assist kids with court preparation. Evading any recognition or pride for her hard work and dedication, Shaheda says that seeing the impact made on the children gives one a sense of confidence in continuing this journey. She says it’s important to “turn a crisis into an opportunity.” She never takes sole credit for any triumphs, stating that it’s all a team effort. “It’s not about winning or failure. Getting recognition is great but failure only makes one stronger. You only fail if you fail to not try again.”
One of her most disconcerting projects were children (aged 12 and under) who sexually abuse other children. This despairing experience broadened her thought process and made her realise that one can never be judgmental in this line of work. She grimly recalls the soul-destroying case of a 4-year-old boy who was sexually abused, which sticks with her as a poignant reminder of the powerlessness and defenselessness of children. While one may lose all faith in humanity after dealing with such abhorrent cases, Shaheda always finds grounds for hope and positivity. She believes that there’s hope for every child you reach out to, provided they get the help they need.
Dr. Omar says that the Proudly Muslims of SA initiative creates an awareness that nothing is impossible. “There’s so much out there to be done, and a platform of this nature will inspire and motivate people to jump out of their comfort zones and assist others.”
Her advice to the humanitarian in us all is to be honest, demonstrate courage, be true to yourself and compassionate to others. She prudently expresses that adversity and hardship doesn’t define you, and even though you don’t have control over what has happened to you, you do have control over how you respond to it.
Her philanthropic goal for the future is to establish a support structure for children with disabilities, as they are the greatest targets for predators.
Her life motto: “I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in striving for excellence. People get rewarded for productivity, not perfection.”
Shaheda would like to be remembered as someone who was always ready to embrace any challenge and willing to defy inequalities, confront deception and do whatever it takes to help others.
Child protector by profession, guardian angel by our designation, Dr. Shaheda Omar is an exquisite and luminous ray of light to children who have been through their darkest days. Her selfless and empathetic efforts give innocent victims the power to rise above their haunting experiences with the promise of an optimistic future. She returns the true meaning of ‘childhood’ to each young life she saves.
For more information about The Teddy Bear Clinic, please call 011 484 4554 or visit ttbc.org.za