When reading the news in South Africa, it seems as though we've become accustomed to the bar being set even lower. We're used to living in fear and have stopped noticing how much tighter we are gripping our handbags, how fewer children are playing outside and how often we are reminded to be aware of our valuables and our safety.
Our crime statistics are always bleak, but what's just as bleak are the statistics for children born with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). According to organisations that research FASD, South Africa has the highest reported rate of FASD in the world. They say the high rate of FASD could be a contributing factor to crime and about 60 000 to 72 000 children are born with FASD every year. There are about six million people with FASD in South Africa.
FASD is brain damage suffered by newborns when a woman consumes alcohol during her pregnancy. It has not been established if a certain amount of alcohol consumed would cause the unborn child to develop FASD, so it is advised for women to abstain from drinking completely.
There are various symptoms of FASD. They could be physical abnormalities such as growth retardation, damage to organs and damage to the brain which could cause learning disabilities and problems with interpersonal relationships. People with FASD have no sense of wrong or right so they may find themselves in social situations without the ability to respond appropriately. There is no cure for FASD and the damage to the brain cannot be reversed. However, children with FASD can learn through repetition or routine.
There is a large focus on children born with FASD. They attend special needs schools, if they're lucky enough to find a school with enough space to accommodate them, and there are some organisations that provide support for the children and their parents. But what happens when they're adults? Considering there is no cure, it does not disappear once children turn 18. There is not enough research done on the number of adults who have FASD, but we can infer from the numbers there are many adults living with it.
The Western Cape is recognised as having had the highest rate of FASD in the world because of the "dop" system used by wine farmers. Because of its introduction during the 17th century by European settlers, many Western communities today still suffer the legacy of the "dop" system including alcoholism and FASD.
A study by the Foundation for Alcohol Related Research (FARR) reported a very high rate in the Eastern Cape as well. Black and coloured communities were the hardest hit as generations of farm workers were paid using the dop system. It is no wonder so many communities have struggled with alcoholism for so long.
So far in South Africa there has been no research conducted about FASD and its links to crime. But a study in the USA showed that about 60% of people over 12 years old with FASD end up in trouble with the law. The study found it is when they are 12 years old when children who have FASD are most likely to begin committing crime. The study also showed that young people with FASD are 19 times more likely to get arrested for crimes. A Canadian study revealed that a quarter of the country's youth in jail have FASD.
In South Africa children with FASD tend to drop out of school because they simply cannot cope. Once they drop out, it's far easier for them to get involved in crime. When they're young, they need a huge amount of attention which they cannot get from a mainstream school. Unfortunately, there are not enough special needs schools for the high number of children who need it.
Home of Hope is an organisation that has made great strides in the field of FASD and runs a school specifically for children with this condition. The organisation said those suffering from FASD will often end up in criminal activity because they:
- lack impulse control - don't empathise with people, don't show remorse and do not take responsibility for their actions because they probably don't understand the impact of their actions - have difficulty linking current actions with possible future consequences - have poor memory and an inability to learn from past mistakes and experiences which could lead to repeat offences - have difficulty linking cause and effect - can be uninhibited and fearless - lie or engage in confabulation, where they fabricate or distort memories without the conscious intention to deceive - can be socially immature - have difficulty using good judgement to make decisions - may self-medicate. FASD usually goes undiagnosed, so they may develop secondary disabilities like mental disorders. This could lead to self-medicating with illegal drugs which can lead to drug addiction and conflict with the law - are vulnerable to peer pressure and can easily be manipulated by others. For example, they can easily be talked into committing a crime - get easily frustrated which could result in violent behaviour - are vulnerable to addictive behaviours such as drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex - mostly come from unstable homes where alcohol and drug abuse is prevalent, as well as physical and sexual violence - engage in inappropriate sexual behaviour because they cannot control their impulses
According to the FARR, there is no awareness within the South African justice system about FASD and the link to crime. The possibility of FASD is not taken into consideration during a criminal trial and there is no screening process before the person convicted. This means someone with FASD could be imprisoned without knowing why.
Education is key in reducing cases of FASD. Education campaigns about alcohol mainly relate to drinking and driving. But many don't know the dangers and effects of alcohol on the body nor do they have any knowledge about FASD. Some still believe that only coloured people living and working on farms are prone to FASD because of the legacy of the "dop" system. Some children, especially in the middle to higher socio-economic groups are diagnosed with ADHD instead of FASD, which perpetuates a sense of denial about the effects of alcohol.
So what are possible solutions? Firstly, there needs to be greater restrictions on alcohol considering the effect it has on the country. There also needs to be a frank discussion about South Africa's drinking culture and how things can be improved. Government could lead the charge by funding research about the rate of FASD among adults in SA. The fact that South Africa has been listed as one of the top alcohol consumers in the world, coupled with a high rate crime cannot be a coincidence. South Africa's crime problem can be reduced by addressing its drinking problem.
- Statistics and information were provided by the FARR and Home of Hope.
I've worked with Home of Hope before and they do outstanding work when it comes to children with FASD. If you're looking for a cause to support, please consider them.
- Faatimah Hendricks is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter as @GarlicNaan or at selfwriteous.co.za.
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