What's happening to our children?

Sexual assault, 'corrective rape', gangsterism and suicide. This not the script for a Hollywood movie; it's what's happening in our schools, to our children, on a daily basis.

This is according to a shocking report released by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) this week. The statistics have again highlighted the increase in school-based violence and the effect this is having on South Africa's children.

Some of the more shocking findings in the report show that:

  • Children are twice as likely as adults to become victims of crime.
  • More than a fifth of sexual assaults of young people occurred while they were at school.
  • South African children are 25 times more likely to be admitted to hospital with injury than children growing up elsewhere in the world.
  • According to a study of 1 227 female students who were victims of sexual assault, 8,6 percent (105 students) had been assaulted by teachers. This was backed up by the Western Cape Education Department which admitted that, on average, it received between one and four cases a month against teachers for sexual assault or harassment of students.
  • Another study, by the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP), found that 26 percent of students were of the opinion that forced sexual intercourse did not necessarily constitute rape.
  • The SAHRC also highlighted a growing phenomenon of 'corrective rape' – a term referring to a practice by male students who rape lesbian students in the belief that afterwards the victim will no longer be lesbian.

How did school get so violent?
The SAHRC believes that in order to begin understanding where this violence stems from, one should consider the communities the children come from.

"Violence in schools cannot be separated from the communities they serve. A school is often a mirror image of the community and the families it serves and schools therefore cannot address violence in isolation," the SAHRC said.

The report further claimed that poverty in the surrounding community played a significant role in cultivating "violent means to gain power", due to its disempowering effect on pupils.

"Gang association can often be the difference between the victim or the perpetrator of violence. Social dysfunction that affirms the power and status of criminals in communities all add to South Africa's notorious culture of violence," the report said.

'Hit me, rape me'
One of the more disturbing realities to be uncovered in the report is the prevalence of two popular games played on the school yard, one called "hit me, hit me", and the other, "rape me, rape me" in which children chase each other and either hit or pretend to rape each other.

These games show the "extent and level the brutalisation of the youth has reached, and how endemic sexual violence has become in South Africa", the SAHRC said. Violence had become part of children's identities.

With regard to "corrective" rape, a gay and lesbian rights group told the SAHRC during public hearings that homosexual pupils experienced "high levels of prejudice" at school, resulting in "exclusion, marginalisation and victimisation".

The SAHRC agreed that heterosexism and homophobia fuelled discrimination. OUT, an NGO involved in training programmes and policy development to curb violence against homosexual pupils, added that there were high drop-out rates among LGBT pupils. Discrimination often led to suicide and substance abuse, said OUT.

School not a safe place
School may once have been a haven for children to learn and play, but the SAHRC report has highlighted that this is no longer the case. It described schools as "the 'single most common' site of crimes such as assault and robbery against pupils".

The SAHRC cited a study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP), which showed that young people were twice as likely to become victims of crime than adults. According this study, just over two fifths (41,1 percent) of the young people interviewed had been victims of some form of crime.

The commission found that pupils were now more "willing and able" to use physically aggressive ways to solve conflicts.

The Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town confirmed that the most common forms of violence it treated scholars for, were assault with a fist, knife or panga, rape and sexual assault, bite wounds and firearm-related injuries.

"The probability that a child growing up in South Africa will be admitted to hospital with an injury is approximately 25 times higher than that of a child growing up elsewhere in the world," the report said.

In recommendations put forward to the education department by the SAHRC, it advised that schools identify areas, such as toilets, where victimisation occurred and consider "reconfiguring" them. Careful screening and security measures were other methods mooted to prevent pupils from bringing weapons into schools.

Other recommendations included reducing overcrowding, transforming unattractive environments, and ensuring safe transport. Another intervention was creating child-friendly reporting systems, the reason being that if learners have suffered violence within the school environment, they may have difficulties seeking assistance due to feelings of shame, fear or intimidation.

Children dying as a result
The SAHRC's report also claimed that the death rate of South African children due to violence is 60 percent higher than the global average, according to the Red Cross Children's Hospital.

The hospital's statistics show that 10 percent of the 4 474 children it treated over nine years were assaulted in school.

"It would appear that being at school is more dangerous for children than being anywhere else," the SAHRC said.

The SAHRC also said that, in addition to intentional violence, more than 6 000 children between the ages of one and 14 died as a result of unintentional violence each year.

The report also said: "The impact of school-based violence goes beyond the physical harm that arises from violent incidents. Instead, its effects are expressed in a range of defective learner behaviour and an increase in suicide rates among learners who are not able to deal with violence and who feel unprotected."

A recent survey conducted by the Medical Research Council showed:

  • 3,5 - 4 percent of deaths of children aged between 10 and 14 were a result of suicide.
  • Another 23 percent had planned some form of suicide.
  • 33 percent had considered killing themselves.
  • 35 percent had experienced feelings of overwhelming sadness.

Source: Sapa

(Amy Henderson, Health24, March 2008)

Read more:
Surviving the playground
Stabbed at school

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