Communities affected by gang violence are in need of help to deal with the trauma.
Addressing how gang violence overwhelms children and teachers at schools is the main concern of Dr Shanaaz Hoosain from Colorado Park.
In last week’s Plainsman alone we reported on a series of events where schools were caught in the gang crossfire and violence.
This included a gang boss being gunned down in front of his children’s primary school and a teacher threatened with rape (“Schools caught in crossfire”,Plainsman, February 13).
Dr Hoosain, 47, focuses on how the trauma of gang violence is experienced from one generation to another. This is called intergenerational trauma. She is currently offering her expertise to schools and community organisations through seminars and workshops to schools affected by gang violence, bullying and racial conflict.
Dr Hoosain said gang violence affects pupils’ progress, academic performance and teachers’ ability to teach.
“We do not have enough social workers or enough psychologists. We need to provide people with better information which can help them cope better in their situation especially if one understands why pupils respond aggressively to certain situations,” said Ms Hoosain.
The seminars provide schools with information to better manage pupils’ behaviour and the difficulties teachers experience.
“If trauma isn’t addressed, if you don’t have the information to help you cope, trauma can affect you on a long-term basis, you can react in different ways,” said Dr Hoosain, who has done work with children in Tafelsig who were exposed to gang violence.
“Because of how trauma affects their brain, children are not able to focus. They become hyperactive, aggressive, withdrawn and have high levels of anxiety. When you are experiencing all of this, how can you learn?”
She said people become used to seeing children in that state and one thinks that’s how they usually are while their behaviour is actually an outcome of being exposed to violence.
“When one experiences trauma, a stress hormone is released called cortisol, making you hyper-alert and vigilant. When this hormone is released children or adults are unable to focus and concentrate, due to the high stress levels that are still within their bodies,” said Dr Hoosain.
After a while the children experience complex trauma, when they experience trauma for a long time, and then their stress levels stay high all the time, she said.
The amygdala, part of the temporal lobe of the brain, picks up on your stress levels, and this part of your brain can’t tell time. Even when you are not exposed to immediate danger you respond as if you are in danger.
“If the trauma happened at school, making it stressful for the child and teacher, the school then serves as a trigger for stress, affecting both teacher and child.
“It’s impossible to teach or learn in this environment,” said Dr Hoosain.
However, she said, when you understand what’s happening, you feel more in control.
In 2014 Dr Hoosain conducted research in Tafelsig for her PhD, on intergenerational trauma. She knows the community very well, she said.
After the research was completed there was a need to work with the children who were exposed to gang violence.
“On a Saturday a shooting broke out in the area. We could not go on with the programme. We had to address the children’s trauma first.”
The children shared their experiences during the shooting, on what they saw, what they heard and how they felt when it happened. She helped the adults first so that they could support the children.
“We no longer have safe spaces in our community so we need to recreate this,” she said.
“There are generations of young children in the community who have been greatly affected by the trauma of violence. They have no space to speak about this. It will impact our lives if we suppress it or don’t talk about it,” said Dr Hoosain.
“The gang violence is an issue that we as the community struggle with. Sometimes we think it’s the responsibility of the police to do this but the police are not counsellors. They are to do damage control. Gang violence comes a long way in Cape Town. It was a result of poverty. It spiked when the (apartheid government’s) Group Areas Act (and forced removals) took place. Most people who are part of a gang feel a sense of family and belonging. If we don’t address this issue, it is like we are raising another generation of gang members.”
Dr Hoosain is currently lecturing and supervising post-graduate social work students in gender-based violence and community violence at the North-West University.
Dr Hoosain has won the East of England Regional Award for Equality and was recognised in a national award, Action Race Network, related to promoting anti-racism. She also published articles in the Child Abuse Journal for South Africa, South African Journal of Social Work and Social Development.
She offers a free three-hour seminar for schools. For more information, you can contact Dr Hoosain on Shanaaz@drhoosain.co.za or