OPINION | Include children’s voices on issues that concern them

A general view of children and adults at Delft South Primary School standing in line to collect literacy books, sandwiches, oranges and apples. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)
A general view of children and adults at Delft South Primary School standing in line to collect literacy books, sandwiches, oranges and apples. (Photo by Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

As South Africa marks Child Protection Week, we should focus attention on issues of child protection and safety. Children face two pandemics, sexual violence and Covid-19, and remain excluded from national conversations. We do not know what is happening to them.

Child protection week is a time to place focused attention on issues of child protection and safety, and to critically reflect on how we position children in South Africa. Since the national lockdown which resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been even less focus on children’s subjective realities even though children make up 35% of South Africa’s population. An analysis by Media Monitoring Africa shows that only 10% of stories in the media focus on issues about children.  From these stories, less than 3% are from the perspectives of children. 

According to Crime Stats of the 2018/2019 financial period there were 24 387 sexual offences against children reported to the South African Police Services; rape was the highest offence with a count of 18 586 cases. Sexual violence to children includes sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of boys and girls, under the age of 18, in person and online. Children can be forced, pressured, coerced into unwanted or unlawful sexual activity or attempts thereof including harassment. Despite its seriousness and extra-ordinary prevalence, child sexual violence is enmeshed in the 10% of reports in the media and how children experience it is enmeshed in the 3%. 

The silence about child sexual violence is rather alarming because 41% of all reported rapes in the country are perpetrated on children.   Meanwhile, for the period 27 March to 30 April 2020, there have been a 400% increase of calls to Childline Gauteng. Whilst only 14.5% of these calls were related to abuse this indicates a 62% hike in abuse since lockdown.  It is unknown who violates children during lockdown because we are not hearing from children. 

While children face two pandemics, sexual violence and Covid-19, and are the most vulnerable, they remain excluded from national conversations and we do not know what is happening to them. What we know is that boys and girls experience sexual violence mainly from adult perpetrators, commonly men, followed by other children. Due to lockdown, being at home protects children from peer sexual victimisation and predators outside of the family. However, we know that children are victimised by people closest to them, in their homes, institutions, schools and in communities. With structural violence being a major issue in the country, homes remain overcrowded and family systems are fluid. This places children at increased risk of perpetration in the home and worse, if the perpetrator is the breadwinner. We need to know what is happening to children.

While there are some reports on child sexual violence it is neither enough nor appropriate to enmesh children’s issues within broader issues such as problems experienced by the education system and those of mental health organisations. This suggests that the media ignores sexual violence against children as part of the broader sexual and gender-based victimisation pandemic. This is despite the Children’s Act which calls for the consultation of children on matters that concern them in a way that is developmental appropriate stating, “every child that is of such an age, maturity and stage of development as to be able to participate in any matter concerning that child has the right to participate in an appropriate way and views expressed by the child must be given due consideration”. 

Children have a right to be heard. Not hearing children is a violation of that right. The State and other duty bearers such as parents and caregivers have an obligation to respect and protect children which requires hearing children. At the present time the emphasis on avoiding infection suggests that adults think that protecting children from coronavirus is more important than protecting them from other threats such as violence and fulfilling other rights such as the right to be heard and to be included in matters that concern them. 

Children’s Institute

Children also have the right to participate in decision making in matters that concern them.  Speaking for and about children instead of with them creates vulnerable constructions of childhood. Such constructions position children as lacking agency and passive victims of violence, especially sexual violence.  Not giving children voice portrays them as passive victims and it disempowers them, which increases the risk of them being silenced by the public. Such actions silence children and gives child predators power to continue abusing them. Over and above, adults make better decisions when they listen to children.

While there are arguments about children’s abilities and maturity, it is worth emphasising that the right to participate is not about autonomy.  In fact, it is quite the opposite – children have the right to participate in decision-making in recognition that adults make decisions on their behalf.  The rights that govern children’s right to decision-making are:

  • 1) Adults must  apply the best interest principle when making decisions for children,
  • 2) Adults making decisions on children’s behalf hearing and taking children’s views seriously, and
  • 3) children’s right to respect for evolving capacities and adult guidance until such time  that children have the capacity to make [informed] choices.

Society needs to hear children’s voices about how they are affected, their struggles, feelings, views and beliefs for the creation of effective interventions. Other children hearing such stories for their child counterparts will feel empowered and regain agency. 

The exclusion of the voices of children from stories of national crises is a result of hierarchical notions of being embedded in patriarchal ideologies where children’s views are dismissed and disrespected. Children are complete human beings and their rights to be heard must be recognised and respected by giving them voice in national conversations. The continued positioning of children as not knowing and non-verbal beings renders them as insignificant members of society and this needs to change. Silencing children’s views and their self-representations by denying them a voice on issues pertaining to gender, sex and violence continues the enculturation of problematic gender roles and the perpetuation of problematic and equally dangerous gender stereotypes. This silencing negatively affects children’s achievement of gender-role identity with life-long consequences into adulthood thus fuelling generational trauma due to gender-based violence.  

- Neziswa Titi and Lucy Jamieson are researchers at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town. For comments and queries please contact Neziswa Titi at neziswa.titi@uct.ac.za. 

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