Shaheda Bibi Omar

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Summary: Dr. Shaheda Bibi Omar, a social justice activist, widely credited for championing children's rights in South Africa, is motivated by deep-rooted passion for justice and belief in the power of kindness. Renowned for her expertise and commitment to justice and equality, Omar is the Clinical Director of the Teddy Bear Foundation, an organisation that works to prevent and minimize the devastating effects of abuse on children and their families. Omar's journey has not been easy, from facing sexual harassment and exclusion from the mainstream education system when she was young, to workplace harassment for challenging patriarchy and racism. But Omar remains committed to her cause for justice, especially among children, arguing that her childhood experience only strengthened her resolve.

Profile: Dr. Shaheda Bibi Omar grew up in one of Johannesburg’s overpopulated poor neighborhoods; she was raised by an extended family during apartheid South Africa. Nurtured by the values of kindness, sharing, and caring, Omar has been driven by a philosophy: “You make a living from what you do but a life from what you give.”

Omar describes her upbringing as tough. As a child and young adult, she faced financial challenges that affected her self-esteem and educational opportunities. She recalls the hardships of not having the necessary school supplies, facing ridicule from classmates and enduring the discriminatory education system of the time:

“School was a pain for me. I wanted to go to school, but it was a pain because I could not explain why I didn't have those things with me. I was always feeling afraid to go to school because I would be called up to the front because we hadn’t paid school fees, and the humiliation and the stigma. That other children will see that your parents haven’t paid. While it was a nominal sum, there wasn’t money to pay for school fees. So again, not being able to buy a school bag, like the standard school bag that students would use. So it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing and children are children and could be quite cruel. They mocked me for bringing that kind of bag to school.”

But the other experience that molded the woman she is today and strengthened her resolve for justice and fairness, Omar says, “was growing up under apartheid. Its

legislation made sure people were separated and disaggregated according to the different population groups. The discrimination was very clear.”

These circumstances served as a catalyst for her ambition and determination to rise above them and to make a positive impact on her community, as well as the organisation she currently serves. She expresses a deep commitment to giving back to her community and dismantling the negative aftermath of apartheid.

Since 2000, Omar has been the Clinical Director of Teddy Bear Foundation, a children's rights movement, challenging unjust and unfair practices against children. In this role, Omar has introduced innovative programs to address critical issues. One program, she notes, is “the forensic assessment program and diversion,” showcasing her dedication to making a positive impact on the lives of individuals and families.

The married mother of four, Omar has appeared as an expert witness and has also sat in court as an assessor, assisting and guiding magistrates in their understanding of the cases presented on children's rights. Omar and her Foundation colleagues fearlessly challenge legislation and policy in pursuit of the best interest of the child to prevent secondary trauma and victimisation of all children and their families. As evidence of her commitment, Omar and her organisation won a constitutional Court judgment that decriminalised consensual sex of children between the ages of 12 to 15 years old.

Omar blames government inaction and wants perpetrators of gender-based violence and those who abuse children to be held accountable: “Angry people often lash out at the weakest and most vulnerable. . . . The violence against women and children is a systemic issue needing systemic intervention.”

Viewing her work as a calling and not as a job, Omar has faced a significant amount of risk. Her struggle for social justice saw her tirelessly confronting patriarchy and racism in her own organisation. These confrontations resulted in instances where she was intentionally blocked from media and networking meetings. However, Omar boldly found her voice and stood firm on her principles, leading to clashes with management over issues of principle. When colleagues and family suggested that she take a break, she would respond, “The work I do is not a job; it is my passion. I love what I do, and seeing a child’s face light up makes it so meaningful and gives me the energy I need to proceed.

Today, Omar is a globally recognized children's rights defender; she serves on various organizational boards, including those of Nkosi’s Haven, the Muslim AIDS programme, the Arepp Theatre for Life, and the Johannesburg Institute for Social Services. Her courage to challenge discriminatory practices and policies within her workplace demonstrates a deep-seated commitment to justice, even when faced with potential professional consequences.

Omar is pleased with the parents who have expressed their gratitude for the work she does with the Teddy Bear Foundation:

“I have parents coming in here, and I do recognize them, I must have seen them 10 or 15 years ago and they say, speak to my child, you saw my child when she was 8 or you saw my child when she was 10; she is now 24. . . . You played a role, an important role in their life, and I would say you did it on your own, you came forward and dared to act appropriately. Those are the things that give me the urge to want to continue. You know they come in, I think they don’t realise that they have that inner strength, they just need someone to pull it out, that’s all. It is them doing the work; this is just facilitation.”

“Each day I am privileged to take another step on my journey. An act of kindness can be seen by the blind and heard by the deaf, and so the legacy that I would love to leave behind is kindness, substance, and honour. . . .This is not work for me; it’s a calling, a calling that reaches my inner core. . . . I draw strength from seeing the growth, the journey, how things have developed and flourished and seeing children grow, seeing families improve their lot in life in whatever shapes or forms. It is so rewarding.”