News

In South Africa, Unborn Children Harmed by Alcoholic Mothers

Sanna Winston (right), in her home on a wine farm in South Africa's Western Cape province.
Sanna Winston (right), in her home on a wine farm in South Africa's Western Cape province.

Sanna Winston remembers the first time alcohol passed her lips.

“It tasted terrible. It burned. It hurt,” she recalls.

Winston was “five or six” years old.

“My stepmother forced me to drink wine, so that I would be too scared to tell my father what she was doing behind his back. She used to say, ‘If you tell your father, I will tell him that you drank as well, and then we will both get a hiding from him.’ So I kept quiet.”

Today, the 38-year-old mother of five is enduring the consequences of her childhood trauma.

“I am a drinker. If someone makes me angry, or I get sad, then I drink a hell of a lot. Then I drink until the people see that I am totally drunk,” Winston acknowledges.

Sanna Winston's head and face bear the bruises and bumps of a previous assault; her arms are also covered in knife-scars.
Sanna Winston's head and face bear the bruises and bumps of a previous assault; her arms are also covered in knife-scars.

She lives in a small house, its windows broken and its walls peeling plaster, on a farm at Wellington in South Africa’s Western Cape province. The town’s in the heart of the country’s famed wine lands. The area is a kaleidoscope of beauty, with craggy gunmetal and russet mountains rising out of verdant vineyards and multicolored fruit plantations.

“The tourists who come here only see the pretty things. They don’t see us. We are kept hidden. We are disgraceful,” Winston mumbles, leading her 8-year-old daughter, Francisca, through a field of purple grapes.

As the girl gambols off down a gravel road to join her friends, Winston sighs, “Francisca is not like my other children. She’s not good at school.”

The mother pauses.

“With Francisca, when I got pregnant with her, I was drinking a lot, so bad that I lay on the ground drunk. I can see now that Francisca’s head is damaged,” she whispers. “Doctors have told me my girl has fetal alcohol syndrome.”

Sanna Winston leads her daughter, Francisca, home from school.... Doctors suspect Francisca has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
Sanna Winston leads her daughter, Francisca, home from school.... Doctors suspect Francisca has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Experts say the disease, also known as FAS, is the most common preventable cause of mental retardation in the world. When mothers drink alcohol while they’re pregnant, their babies often suffer enduring physical and mental harm – including heart defects, stunting, diminished intelligence and behavioral problems. South Africa has the highest rate of FAS in the world. In some areas of the country, it affects up to 120 children out of every thousand.

Winston says her daughter has “bad memory” and “thinks very slowly.” She blames herself for the child’s condition. Winston says, “Francisca makes me think very badly about myself, about why I did such a terrible thing to her, drinking while she was inside me. My other children are not damaged like her. She’s my last baby; I can’t have any more children. Then I think, ‘Oh, God, why?’”

Alcohol ‘extremely poisonous’ to babies

According to Professor Dennis Viljoen, an international authority on fetal alcohol syndrome, Francisca shows some of the “classic” symptoms of the affliction he brands a “field of human disaster” and the “most common birth defect in South Africa by far.”

“The current wisdom is that probably any alcohol affects a baby adversely. Any amount,” stresses Viljoen, who’s a pediatrician, a medical geneticist and head of the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) in Cape Town.

Top South African fetal alcohol syndrome expert, Professor Dennis Viljoen.... He calls the disease a
Top South African fetal alcohol syndrome expert, Professor Dennis Viljoen.... He calls the disease a "field of human disaster."
 

Alcohol, he says, is “extremely poisonous” to an unborn baby. “What it does is it disrupts tissue formation, particularly in the brain, to such an extent that children suffer serious neurological consequences. They may also suffer organ defects, such as problems with their hearts and kidneys.”

Viljoen says some children with FAS suffer physical deformities, while others appear “on the surface” to be “perfectly normal.”

He explains that many FAS children, while looking “just like any other child,” perform badly at school. They’re hyperactive and can’t concentrate, and are less intelligent than other youngsters. He says, “Simply put, their brains are smaller” as a result of damage from the alcohol that their mothers drank while pregnant with them.

Viljoen adds that some children are “easily recognizable” as suffering from FAS, having small heads and eyes set wide apart, and being much shorter than other children of their age, as the alcohol has stunted their growth. He says in these cases FAS is a “growth deficiency in all aspects of the body; these children are much smaller in all aspects.”

Winston says when her daughter was born the child was indeed “very small. She looked shriveled up. I got a big fright,” she remembers. Then, tears fill the mother’s tired brown eyes.

“At the hospital, my friend told me, ‘That’s a monster, that’s not a child.’ I almost killed the baby when my friend said that. Then I told myself, ‘No. I Believe in God. This is a human being, this child... .’”

A mother cooks while her child screams for attention in a home in South Africa's Western Cape, which has one of the highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world
A mother cooks while her child screams for attention in a home in South Africa's Western Cape, which has one of the highest rates of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the world
 

Besides having physical problems, says South African public health researcher, Kirstie Rendall-Mkosi, children suffering from FAS often drop out of school and join criminal gangs.

“These children tend to have poor social judgment. They’re very friendly, and they don’t easily learn social norms and cues and are easily persuaded to do things they shouldn’t do,” she says. “They are more easily absorbed into a gang culture and may not be the gang bosses, but may be more the foot soldiers.”

‘Live by the sword….’

In South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria, Rendall-Mkosi is doing groundbreaking research into FAS. She wants the government to accept her findings and to implement nationwide policies to prevent the syndrome. Her work is sponsored by the United States Centers for Disease Control.

“Ideally, our project would suggest that women only ever practice sensible drinking, which is really limited drinking at any point in time, and that they don’t ever indulge in binge drinking,” Rendall-Mkosi says. But she knows that in her country, with its high rates of extreme poverty and brutal violence, she’s sometimes fighting a losing battle.

Professor Viljoen has a similar reaction. He states, “These folk have terrible lives and they live at the bottom end of the spectrum of welfare and general social being. And at the same time, they want to feel relieved from the burdens of their everyday life…and will [therefore] partake of alcohol.”

Back in her disheveled room on the farm at Wellington, Sanna Winston points to furious, black bruises and inflamed bumps on her face and head. “I look like this because a few weeks ago, I went to visit my niece, and they had a box of wine there. We drank. Then my boyfriend got very angry, because he didn’t want me to drink with anyone but him,” she explains, fingering a row of scabs laddered on her neck.

Laborers and their families on South African wine farms seldom have access to any recreational facilities.
Laborers and their families on South African wine farms seldom have access to any recreational facilities. "We're bored," they say, "that's why we drink so much."
 

Winston says her partner “pulled” her away from the party. “Then I stumbled along the road. I fell. He kicked me in the head and dragged me. My body looked terrible. The next day I looked like someone who had been raped,” she sobs.

Everywhere on the region’s farms and in the Cape’s urban sprawls, there are people for whom violence has become a natural state. At the center of the viciousness is alcohol.

“I miss my former husband. He never lifted his hands to me. All he did was once he stabbed me when we were drinking,” Winston matter-of-factly announces, her arms bearing the raised welts of past knife wounds.

When she’s asked where her former husband is now, she says blandly, “Dead. Another farm worker here stabbed him with a messie [little knife]. He died drunk.”

Then, as if to further emphasize the aggression that’s part of life in these communities, Winston says, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Her friend, Annie Demas, interjects, “The men here are often out of work. There’s no money. No proper housing. Nothing nice. No entertainment. Life is so boring. The only joy in life is when we drink.”

Winston adds, “Or when we watch Days of our Lives (an American soap opera),” as the blare from an old television set rises to a crescendo.

Demas fires back, “Only if it’s a good episode. Days is not like it used to be.”

“Ja [yes], I suppose you’re right,” Winston concedes.

"We are now killing our own," says Sharon Messina, an NGO worker who's battling against fetal alcohol syndrome in South Africa's Western Cape province.
 

Then, another resident of the settlement pokes her head around the corner to interrupt.

“Maybe the only reason that you people here suip [guzzle] so much wine is because you watch Days non-stop. If I watched so many episodes of that kak [rubbish], I’d also want to be drunk all the time.”

For the first time today, the women laugh.

‘We are killing our own….’

At Stellenbosch, the town that’s the traditional home of South Africa’s wine industry, Sharon Messina is a fieldworker with the Women on Farms Project. She blames ever-increasing numbers of illegal drinking dens – or shebeens – and the legacy of a system known as the “dop” for the proliferation of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. “Dop” is a slang Afrikaans word meaning “a drink of alcohol.”

Under the “dop” system, some South African farmers paid their laborers not with money, but with wine. The practice was widespread during apartheid. The “dop” has since been outlawed but has left a devastating legacy. Today, alcoholism is deeply engrained in the communities of the Western Cape in particular.

Messina says farm laborers get low wages. Some use the little money they have to support their families. Others drink it “all gone.” Shebeen owners then extend credit to the workers. This, says Messina, ensures that the laborers are in “constant debt.”

She maintains, “The dop lives on. Only now, it’s not the farmers who are enslaving the farm people to the alcohol…. It’s our own people who operate the shebeens on the farms and in the townships. We are now killing our own.”

Children on the wine farms of South Africa's Western Cape often live in impoverished conditions.
Children on the wine farms of South Africa's Western Cape often live in impoverished conditions.
 

Professor Viljoen says cheap alcohol is common in South Africa, and the “shebeen system doesn’t help.” Again, poverty is at the root, he emphasizes.

“The shebeen system is one of informal taverns dispensing alcohol because there’s lack of employment opportunities, particularly in the rural areas. So people open up shebeens to try to make a living. De Aar [a town in the Northern Cape province] for instance has 95 shebeens in a population of 28,000. That’s an incredible number of outlets, right next to the individuals using the alcohol.”

‘Women put wine in their babies’ bottles….’

In some communities in South Africa, especially in the Western and Northern Cape, says Viljoen, alcohol abuse is “almost a badge of honor,” even among women.

By law, South African alcohol products are labeled with health warnings.... but the experts say this measure is inadequate.
By law, South African alcohol products are labeled with health warnings.... but the experts say this measure is inadequate.

“Unlike other communities, where women who drink a lot are shunned, the more you drink here, the more you’re accepted. I often hear people saying, ‘She can drink like a man….’ They mean it as a compliment.”

Messina says she counsels many women who want to stop drinking but there’s “no support system within their families and their communities to encourage rehabilitation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. All the structures encourage and support and approve of more drinking, because you’re seen as an outsider if you don’t participate in all the drinking parties.”

Messina says the alcohol abuse leads to unsafe sex and “many, many unplanned for and unwanted children,” and “no doubt” contributes to rising rates of fetal alcohol syndrome and HIV infection.

But Viljoen says the ubiquity of alcohol in South Africa means that some women regard it as “harmless….I have sat in shebeens and watched women put wine in their baby’s bottles. They give them wine to keep them quiet.”

In South Africa, manufacturers of alcohol products are compelled by law to put labels on their packaging warning that alcohol can damage health. But Rendall-Mkosi says this doesn’t keep pregnant women from drinking.

“I’m not convinced that people pay much heed to what’s written on the bottle if it’s their favorite drink,” she says. Viljoen is even more dismissive of labeling, calling it an “appeasement of government’s conscience.”

The state’s “real focus,” the doctor maintains, “should be on the ground, investing millions in informing people in clear language about why it’s so dangerous to drink so much alcohol. In any case, many people in these communities are illiterate, so they can’t read the labels in the first place.”

South African public health researcher, Professor Kirstie Rendall-Mkosi, says fetal alcohol syndrome results in
South African public health researcher, Professor Kirstie Rendall-Mkosi, says fetal alcohol syndrome results in "devastating" effects in society.
 

Rendall-Mkosi’s convinced that the government isn’t recognizing the “huge” extent of the FAS problem in South Africa. The health workers agree that unless poverty declines and people get jobs and better housing, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome will continue to cut a devastating swathe across the country.

The government says it’s doing all it can to educate people, including mothers, about the dangers of excessive alcohol use and is providing social grants to poor people in areas affected by FAS. But Viljoen says the money’s often used “purely to supplement people with alcohol.”

“We need to bombard these communities with information, not just money!” he exclaims.

As a start, Rendall-Mkosi wants the state to provide high quality family planning services to prevent children from being born with FAS. “Contraception should be offered to the women so that they’re not having babies at regular intervals,” she says.

On the farm in Wellington, Sanna Winston clearly loves her daughter. “Francisca is everything to me,” the woman murmurs.

“We’re heading to the promised land, the promised land!” Francisca hums, when her mother asks her to sing the song she learned in class today.

But for many who live in South Africa’s magnificent wine lands, and elsewhere in communities ravaged by fetal alcohol syndrome across the nation, the promise at the moment is only of more misery ahead.

This is part 14 of our 15 part series, A Healthy Start: On the Frontlines of Maternal and Infant Care in Africa

« Prev: HIV/AIDS Transmission Series Index Next: Immunizations »
This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs