Guest Column

Our children growing up in violence, leads to a violent future

2017-12-05 12:38
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Carolin Gomulia

One of the critiques of the 16 Days of Activism initiative is that it lumps together gender violence and violence against children as if both were just the same thing.

It infantilises women and disregards that violence against children is different in the scope and nature it manifests itself. It becomes this 'one thing' we can talk to in one sentence and 'do' something about in one go by giving money or launching a campaign – maybe even secretly hoping that 'this thing' will go away.

Or maybe because its manifestations are so ugly and so manifold we prefer to talk about it as if it was one thing to avoid the full horror.

Unpacking the topic of violence against children on its own shows that fighting 'it' will not work but that it requires a whole host of deliberate multi-sectoral interventions on all levels and layers of society.

The Children's Institute at the University of Cape Town, in partnership with others, has helped to collect statistics and evidence about what it means to be a child in South Africa. The 2017 Child Gauge Report paints a sad picture of a society that fails to invest in children and hence neglects its own future. Zooming into the issue of violence against children, we can now provide more accurate numbers to the horrific things that happen to children. But are we still sensitised enough to actually do something? I want to refresh our memory.

There are about 18.5 million children in South Africa. The research report, 'Out of harm's way', published in 2017, the first national prevalence study on child protection, estimates that between 20% – 34% of children experience some form of contact violence before the age of 18.

Let's put this in real numbers as percentages are often wonderful to hide behind; it means between 3.7 million and 6.3 million children. The statistics tell us that almost one in three children suffer physical violence. Physical violence means rape, assault, stabbing, beating, breaking of bones, burning and more.

Think about a school class – that means in a class of, say, 30 kids, 10 experience this type of violence. When we hear of brutal child murders they're often linked to rape and sexual violence. But we actually only hear about the very gruesome and ugly instances because a not-so-sensational death by a stray bullet from a gang fight on the Cape Flats is hardly newsworthy anymore.

The study also found that every three days, a child is killed due to abuse and neglect making the child murder rate for South Africa more than double the global average.

The same study showed 16% and 12% of kids suffer emotional abuse and neglect, respectively. That's almost 3 million and over 2 million kids. This abuse expresses itself in verbal violence, rejection, causing fear, isolation and bullying. In sum, taking away feelings of self-worth and eroding one's self-confidence. Neglect entails deliberately leaving children hungry or dirty, without adequate clothing, shelter, supervision and health care.

Even though it is obvious that in a context such as South Africa neglect is in many instances linked to poverty and deprivation, it remains a form of violence that children have to endure. Approximately 3000 children are abandoned annually in South Africa; most of them are newborns. The main reason is poverty but often intertwined with cultural and religious practices that condemn and judge children born out of wedlock.

This year Cape Town residents were shocked when at a usual spot for smash and grab incidents on one of Cape Town's busy roads, a person attempted to steal not a handbag, but a child! Can you imagine someone trying to steal your child while your car waits for the traffic light signal to change? I don't know what to call this form of violence.

This is not where it stops. Nor starts.

Poverty and systemic failures are the largest contributors to the violence, impacting our most vulnerable in society while in the womb. Maternal undernutrition accounts for 20% of stunting. More than 11.5 million children (62%) live below the upper-bound poverty line (households with a monthly per capita income less than R965).

According to Statistics South Africa, almost 13% of children are vulnerable to hunger in South Africa. Even though the number has improved significantly over the past two decades it still means 2.4 million children do not receive the calories required to grow, which in turn denies them their right to develop their full brain potential. In total, 27% of children under five are stunted which is a sign of chronic malnutrition that compromises children's health, education and employment prospects.

Michael Komape drowning in a pit toilet in 2014 is not only the most undignified way of dying. It shows how systemic violence of an unequal South Africa translates into daily, direct violence against South Africa's children. What type of violence do we call this where the state itself does not seem to care and argues in one of their statements linked to Michael's court case that, "children in this area are used to this type of toilets"?

Most violence happens in environments where children are with caretakers, parents, in their own home or in a nominally familiar and trusted living environment. Furthermore, even though the legal and policy frameworks in South Africa protect children sufficiently, the poor implementation and the failures of the welfare and judicial and law enforcement systems result in an environment that is failing South Africa's children.

So the question is, what happens to a country that does not protect and care for its children? Despite the cost associated with violence against children estimated at R239 billion – or 6% of the GDP (2015) – what type of society will we live in 10 or 20 years when the children born today grow up exposed to hostility, exploitation and abuse in the form of ongoing violence against their bodies, minds and spirits?

The reports published by the Children's Institute at UCT provides enough evidence that we need to start acting today, not only to protect children but to save a society and country that is on a downward trajectory.

What do we need to do? There are plenty of research reports, policies and strategies that allow us to understand the complexity and intersectional nature of the problem. They also provide recommendations on where to start and what to do.

Civil society in its many manifestations, government institutions such as Department of Social Development, Department of Health, SAPS and the private sector need to not only allocate the required resources, but become active agents for change – be bold, disruptive, courageous and creative – activate networks, systems and individuals to protect children starting today.

- Carolin Gomulia is the head of Strategy, Communications and Advocacy at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    child abuse  |  violence  |  child
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