Team goes all-out to defend our kids

Posted on August 14, 2015

In a country where children are exploited, abused and hurt daily, the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law stands as a fierce defender of the most vulnerable in our society. The eight staff members – seven women and one man – fearlessly take on the State, the media or whoever stands in their way as they endeavour to protect the rights of children.

Children’s rights should not only be the concern of women, yet lawyers working on these kinds of cases do tend to be women. Professor Ann Skelton, Director of the centre, says child law was not part of the ‘old boys’ lawyering club’. Speaking to the Pretoria News in celebration of Women’s Month on how she sees the role of the centre, Prof Skelton said: ‘It is not a sought-after area of work because it is seen as a sub-section of family law, and not really a serious field of law. People are also concerned that the work is emotionally taxing and that it is difficult to work with children. Neither of these generalisations about child law is true. Child law is cross-cutting and it encompasses a wide range of issues such as criminal law, constitutional law, immigration law and socio-economic rights. The centre has worked on cases as diverse as identification of child victims and offenders in the media, babies swopped at hospitals, and international abductions of children by their parents.’

An attorney at the centre, Carina du Toit said the women at the centre joked that the only field of law they didn’t get involved in was commercial law. The centre, however, recently found itself embroiled in several tender disputes where services to children were at risk as a result of irregular tender processes.

‘The claim that children’s rights work involves “sad” cases is also not a reason that only women should do it. In fact, when you are doing something that alleviates children’s suffering, you do not feel overwhelmed or traumatised. The fact that you are working towards a positive outcome and a solution for the child means it is worth the hard work and you feel empowered, not sad,’ said Prof Skelton.

While the staff members believe that boys and girls should be treated equally and deserve equal access to assistance, the centre has been involved in a number of matters that concerned the vulnerability of girls in particular. Earlier this year the centre participated as a friend of the court in a matter where a man claimed that the forced marriage, rape, assault and kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl was defensible as a customary law practice. The centre’s Karabo Ozah argued that girls are particularly vulnerable when it comes to forced marriages and the customary law practice of ukuthwala. This case emphasised the importance of the obligation society has to protect girls. In this case, the girl was still in her school uniform when she was forced to relinquish all her children’s rights and become an adult.

Another case that showed the importance of protecting girls’ rights to education concerned the pupil pregnancy policies of some schools, which stated that a girl must leave school for a period of two years during pregnancy and after giving birth. The centre argued that pupils found it extremely difficult to return to school after giving birth and most, in fact, dropped out if they were not properly supported and encouraged to return. School policies that made it even more difficult for girls to return to school violate their constitutional right to basic education. School policies should allow pregnant pupils to attend school for as long as possible before giving birth and encourage them to return to school soon after giving birth. Allowing a girl to successfully complete her education improves her future employment prospects and gives both mother and child a better chance in life.

Morgan Courtenay, the centre’s only male employee, says the complexity of child law is often underestimated. Fighting for children in the criminal justice system and the mental health system is just as challenging as fighting for adults in those systems – even more so. ‘Anyone who thinks this is a soft job should try it for a day,’ he said.


- Author Centre for Child Law

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