The Exodus of Social Workers [opinion]

AFTER serving only three years as a government health social worker, Katrina Shilongo* wants out.

Not that she does not enjoy offering solutions to the problems of dozens of couples who flock to her office everyday, but because of a list of grievances, among them the feeling that her profession does not receive the respect and recognition it deserves from government.

“We feel we are the stepchild compared to nurses and doctors,” she says.

A few years ago she was beaming with pride as a fresh graduate ready to begin her dream career as a social worker – not anymore.

“I did not study for four years to sit in an office where I do not have a computer to work from or my own work station,” says the 26-year-old. I do not see why anyone would be attracted to this job (social work) when you are forced to work in an environment that does not allow you to do your work properly.”

Her sentiment is shared by six colleagues with whom she shares a cramped office space at the sub-division of Social Welfare Services at the Directorate of Health under the Ministry of Health and Social Services. On a daily basis, the understaffed team deals with drug and alcohol addicts, abused and battered women, couples in rocky marriages and drives out of town to reach those on the outskirts of Windhoek.

Shilongo says the office arrangement has been the same since 2011 when they were forced to share space at the health inspectors’ offices close to the Katutura State Hospital. The sharing of office space, she says, prevents their clients from relating their problems in confidentiality, violating the client confidentiality rule.

Ministry of health’s spokesperson Ester Paulus said the ministry will be relocating the social workers from their current offices to all 11 clinics while outreach programmes will be conducted at three clinics on the outskirts of Windhoek.

“This move will solve the office space for the social workers and bring social services closer to communities,” she said.

However, Shilongo said many of them are not happy with the move to the clinics, saying there were no offices for them there.

Shilongo and colleagues are among thousands of social workers who quit social work in government every year. Apart from this, Shilongo says they have received death threats and were close to being held at gunpoint by the husbands of some of their clients who come for marriage counselling and drug abuse issues.

“Occasionally we have people coming here carrying weapons threatening to kill us because of what we do with no security guards at our offices to protect us,” she says, adding that their security concerns have not been taken seriously by the top management in the ministry.

Another social worker who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation says that she is hunting for another job because there is no growth in the profession.

“The first year we are put on probation and in order to be promoted to principal social worker we have to wait for three years – and promotion is not guaranteed as we are competing with many others regionally,” she says.

The salary of an average social worker ranges between N$13 000 to N$16 000 with housing allowance and medical aid, but many social workers say it is not the salary that irks them but their status.

“It is the fact that our profession is not recognised and the authorities do not understand our role, and as a result, we do not receive enough technical support,” says another social worker.

President of the Namibia Social Workers Association Geraldine Kaninga says they have witnessed an exodus of social workers who leave for greener pastures.

“Towards the end of last year we lost over 40 social workers in the ministry of health alone, many of them to the Ministry of Safety and Security,” she says.

She says as a result of many Namibian social works leaving the field, many foreigners from countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia often fill in those positions.

“Most foreigners are working in the regions because Namibians refuse to be posted to the regions due to the fact that they do not have enough housing allowance,” said Kaninga.

Most social workers said they do not want to be sent to the regions because government does not pay them a bush allowance.

Kaninga said more needed to be done to attract young Namibians to choose social work as a career choice.

Spokesperson for the University of Namibia John Haufiku said the university, which is currently the only institution in the country training social workers, produced between 60 to 65 graduates, most of them Namibians last year.

“Unam has a very strict quota system in terms of enroling international students. This is to ensure that Namibians have a fair share of access to higher education in their country,” he said.

There are currently only 500 social workers catering for the country’s population of two million, the majority of these are employed with the ministry of health and the ministry of gender.

In the Khomas region alone, there are 17 social workers in the ministry of health who also serve the surrounding areas, while the ministry of gender employs 120 social workers.

“Ten of us out of 17 want to leave,” asserts another health social worker. The team at the ministry of health specialises in counselling people over the age of 18, while the social workers at the ministry of gender are responsible for assisting minors below the age of 17.

Still, those in this daunting profession say they are not being understood or recognised and many young people do not want to remain in the profession.

The acting permanent secretary at the ministry of gender, Martha Mbombo, says the country is currently experiencing a shortage of professionals doing social work, psychologists, counsellors and therapists.

“Although the shortage of these professionals is all over the country, the ministry does the recruitment according to its approved organisational structure,” she says.

Mbombo also argues that social workers are trained in various social skills that helps them to deliver services in various positions other than just social work such as HIV-AIDS therapy and counselling.

“Therefore, they have qualifications to be employed in various institutions including the private sector,” she said.

Mbambo disagrees with the fact that social workers are not appreciated or recognised, saying her ministry values their work and contributions, because they address social issues that affect women, children and to some extent men. *Not her real name

Source : The Namibian