The South African Federation of Trade Unions fully supports Child Protection Week, from 25 May to 1 June, and calls for all South Africans to unite to defend children from the widespread abuse, exploitation and neglect which thousands of them experience daily.
Just as the week began, the country learned of more shocking examples of why it is so necessary to focus on this literally life-and-death issue:
1. The bodies of a 17-year-old girl and a 16-year-old girl were found at the Stella High School near Vryburg, North West, on Saturday morning. A hostel matron first found the body of the 17-year-old girl hanging from the rails of the staircase in the hostel. She alerted the school management and the police were summoned. They then discovered the second body with a string around her neck at the hostel’s bathroom.
Police arrested a 19-year-old man, who is believed to be an ex-boyfriend of one of the two girls.
2. 13-year-old ‘Sammy’, from Rosettenville, Johannesburg, was kidnapped last week while on her way home from school. Her family and friends frantically but unsuccessfully searched for her. She was found a few days later in the boot of a car owned by a white male, who is unknown to her family.
She had been raped, beaten and thrown into the boot. A suspect has been arrested. She was barely alive and is struggling to survive in hospital.
3. The mother and step-father of three-year old Poppie van der Merwe have just been sentenced to life in prison for her murder. She was kicked‚ thrown against walls and furniture and subjected to repeated beatings until her death. She died of severe head injuries caused by blunt force trauma. She had old and new injuries all over her body, and her hair had been shorn off to the skin.
Terrible though these atrocities are, they are, tragically, not at all exceptional. In the past three years more than 2,600 children have been murdered At least 41% of all reported rape cases have involved children, tens of thousands of babies have been abandoned (two out of three of whom are reported to have died).
The Social Development Department estimates that one in five children in South Africa are subjected to some sort of sexual, emotional or physical abuse before they turn 18.
A study of 2000 children in Soweto from birth to 22 showed that 99% of them had been exposed to some form of direct or indirect violence in their lifetime.
Thousands more children suffer from non-violent but equally serious forms of abuse and exploitation:
Around 25% of children are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Statistics South Africa has reported the malnutrition remains a serious problem. Gauteng (34.2%), Free State (33.5%) and KwaZulu-Natal (28.5%) had the highest percentage of children who were stunted‚ compared to other provinces. North West (12.6%) and Western Cape (11.9%) had the highest percentage of children who were underweight.
Statistics from the Department of Basic Education show that just over half those who start Grade 1 make it through to the beginning of Grade 12 and well under three-quarters of those registering for Grade 12 complete the year.
Total expenditure on education has been increasing by about the rate of inflation, but after 2003 there was a big increase in the number of births. As a result, grade 1 enrollments showed a similar rise from 2008 onwards, as the extra children started school. This meant that there were about 670,000 more pupils in 2016 than in 2010, leading to larger classes, but without an equivalent increase in income per learner between 2010 and 2017, but on the contrary an 8% decline in real terms.
Also, as the incident in Vryburg illustrates, school are not safe places. Physical and sexual abuse is ongoing. In September 2017, schools in Manenberg were forced to cancel excursions due to gang violence, after attempts to ensure safety using police escorts failed.
16% of schools in 2017 saw at least one learner reported being or seeing someone sexually harassed, and 4% of secondary school administrators reported that a rape occurring at the school in the last year.
Dr Alison Misselhorn, director of research and strategy at the Lunchbox Fund, has said that “About 12 million children in South Africa live below the poverty line. Children’s resilience and development is undermined by chronic conditions of malnutrition and food insecurity.
“In a self-perpetuating cycle, poverty deprives families of the power to insist on an education system that answers their needs. Many children drop out because caregivers cannot continue to afford to provide the basic household necessities of food and clothing, and cover the costs associated with schooling – even where these are minimal.
“Many children are compelled to find work to augment household income, or to attend household duties, such as the care of younger siblings. Girls are more deeply affected than boys, with nearly 20% of school non-attendance among girls being accounted for by family commitments.”
StatsSA has reported that in 2015 577 000 of South Africa’s 11.2 million children between seven and 17‚ were involved in child labour, which they define as work undertaken by children under the age of 18 that is exploitative‚ hazardous or otherwise inappropriate for their age‚ detrimental to their development.
It is a scandal that the Department of Labour has been unable or unwilling to prosecute the employers who are illegally employing all these children.
All these appalling statistics point to a national crisis for our children, in whose hands South Africa’s future lies. The are the victims of a sick and broken society, in which those wth the greatest need of protection are denied it.
The racial divisions we inherited from the apartheid years also remain. White children in general are protected from some the worst of these problems while the vast majority of the poor and black children are born not a world in which they are at a disadvantaged throughout their childhood.
The ANC government has failed to devote the necessary resources and political will to tackle all these problem facing our children. Through pro-capitalist neoliberal policies they have prioritised the interests of big business and their thirst for profits before people. Our children are paying the price.