Each child in South Africa is every citizen's concern

Posted on May 31, 2016

National Child Protection Week goes beyond raising awareness of children's right to protection and their related vulnerability; it also provides an opportunity for duty bearers and civil society to reflect on our progress in creating a more just society by putting children first.

South Africa's Constitution and the Children's Act 38 of 2005 are progressive on the rights of children. In addition to the Bill of Rights, which safeguards the rights of all human beings, children have special rights to protection that are stipulated in section 28 of the Constitution. There are commendable efforts in place to buffer children against poverty and to create a safer and more supportive environment, such as child support grants, early childhood development programmes and feeding schemes.

However, children are frequently exposed to toxic environments that increase their vulnerability. The violence that takes place in families, communities and schools is a reflection of children's exposure to and understanding of the ways in which society deals with differences and conflict. According to research, the types of violence that occur in these settings include verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; gang-related violence; destruction of property; and, notably, bullying and cyber-bullying.

Society reacts with horror when news of an instance of violence against children breaks, particularly if it is perpetrated by someone who is supposed to be protecting children within a safe environment, such as a parent, family member, or teacher. However, when a community denies children their right to education by destroying schools, the responses revolve around the material costs of repairing damage to infrastructure, replacing destroyed learning and teaching material and rolling out mobile classrooms; as well as statements that violence against state property will not be tolerated; and the fact that teachers are prevented from returning to schools through intimidation. With regard to children, reports centre on the number of children who have been affected and what will be done to re-open the schools so that learning can continue, rather than addressing children's experiences as victims of conflicting agendas or asking for their suggestions on how best to get back on track with their education. Society seems to ignore the impact of these incidents on children's psychosocial well-being and their perceptions of conflict resolution, preferring to address wider political and structural matters.  

Delivering containers of school supplies is not enough to deal with the trauma caused by children's losses and the interruption to their education. It is not sufficient to condemn the burning down of schools and debate why this happens on political and other platforms, as these activities do not help children to understand why their right to education is being violated.

It is not only children's learning that is affected. For many learners, their school may be the one place where they are guaranteed one meal a day. Schools also serve as venues where they can attend homework classes, engage in projects during the school holidays, access sport and recreation, or as meeting places for parents and teachers to discuss the progress and support of learners. The loss of schools perpetuates poverty and inequality, and diminishes children's hope for a better future.      

In an unequal society such as South Africa's, it is especially important that the voices of the people, including those of children, are heard. Communities should make their voices heard in support of the rights of all, particularly children. However, all rights come with responsibilities. Children have demonstrated their commitment to going back to school by turning up to help clean up the mess and calling upon their teachers to return so that they can continue with their school work. However, society as a whole should assume responsibility for its children, and stand up for their right to education.

The university context may represent the time that students have a platform to protest against injustice when their right to education has been violated. Those who do not make it to university will likely give up and become part of the majority of unemployed youth in the country who have lost hope for a better future.

Child Protection Week poses a serious question to communities and society on how we allow, participate in, and even instigate the violation of the rights of children. What society targets the heart of a better future for their children, by abusing them or destroying their pathway to education? Who encourages learners to join in targeting their schools and violating their own right to education? Society should stand up against the violation of children's rights to protection and education, and should do so in a manner that protects them and gives them hope, in order to indicate to children that they are people with dignity and worth. We should do this with children's involvement, rather than on their behalf.

Government's initiative to target schools for placement of social workers is a good start in addressing acts of harm and injustice towards children. There is a huge need for social workers in schools and other settings where children should be protected, and an equally great need to deploy the many graduate social workers who are unemployed. However, the responsibility to protect children does not rest solely on government and organisations that provide services to them. Each child in our society is everyone's responsibility. Notably, it is the responsibility of society to guard collectively against actions and processes that violate children's rights in the service of political agendas. Ultimately, child protection entails listening to children, recognising them as people with agency, and guiding and supporting them in developing a vision and hope of a future of success and achievement.


- Author Prof Antoinette Lombard, head of the Department Social Work and Criminology at UP

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