For over a month, everyone in the country, except for those providing essential services, has been required to stay at home during a country-wide lockdown to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
This means that children have not been to school and were initially even prohibited from moving between households – a regulation which was later amended.
A lot of the focus on children during the current crisis has related to this amendment, accessing meals and education. But children may be facing other harms during this time.
While watching my own children safely play, I found myself wondering what was happening to children who were stuck in abusive homes.
The first nationally representative study of child maltreatment, which studied “all forms of physical and/or emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect or negligent treatment ... resulting in actual or potential harm to the child [World Health Organisation]”, was published in 2016.
According to the study, it is estimated that 82% of South Africa’s children have either experienced or witnessed some form of victimisation and 42% have experienced some form of ill-treatment.
While not all the incidents of maltreatment experienced by children happened at home, it still shows that home is unfortunately not a safe place for many children in the country.
A survey on the epidemiology of child homicides found that child homicide locally was more than twice the global average. It also found that, “three in four murders of young children (zero to four years) occurred in the context of abuse by a caregiver at home”.
More recently, the 2017 South African Child Gauge found that one in three children would experience sexual or physical abuse before the age of 18.
South Africa in better times dismally fails its children, and it does so even in the midst of a global pandemic when children are isolated from others.
While a range of resources, including WhatsApp and call back services, have been made available for victims of violence, the underlying assumption with most of them is that the victim is an adult with access to a mobile device – which is not the case for most children. There are few places these children can turn to for support.
Indeed, with schools closed and most children having limited or non-existent contact with people outside the home, children facing abuse are now cut off from adults who could possibly help them.
I know my own children’s contact with people outside our home is mediated by me right now since they do not have their own electronic devices, and I’m sure it’s the same for many other children, so they cannot even try to access help via online means.
On the flip side, some children are spending more time on devices – for school and entertainment purposes – sometimes without adult supervision.
Child care organisation Unicef South Africa has warned that this puts them at increased risk of harm online. This has been a global problem during lockdowns, such as in London where police warned about the online harm of children, after indecent images of 92 children were found online within a month of their lockdown.
In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government’s disaster response plan has failed to adequately address child abuse by increasing services for children at risk.
One way of fixing this would be requiring all educational resources being provided to children, throughout this period, to develop some kind of safety plan – providing guidance on how they could reach out for help within their communities.
Schools that are continuing to teach online should be compelled to do so in ways that support the mental health of children.
But over and above that, the government should be scaling up social protection measures to mitigate the social and economic impacts of the outbreak on children.
Turning to the communities and organisations who even before this crisis were working for the protection of children and bolstering community-based support services is also essential.
Of course, this work is not for the government to do on its own, there is a role for us all. Those with friends whose children they are close to, should try phoning regularly and speaking to the child.
If possible, video call, which will allow you to see the child. Be aware of what is happening in your neighbourhood, look out for the kids.
While government and society at large are facing a wide range of competing challenges, we cannot let children be forgotten.
The Covid-19 pandemic is already claiming lives, livelihoods and restricting our movements; children’s safety and wellbeing should not be another casualty of the outbreak.
Moeti has a long background in civic activism and has over the years worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. In 2019, she was announced as an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity. She is also an inaugural Obama Foundation Fellow and an Aspen New Voices Senior Fellow.
- Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti