The right to protection from violence

Corporal punishment is banned in South African schools. (Photo: Unicef/Lucy Jamieson)

Corporal punishment is banned in South African schools. (Photo: Unicef/Lucy Jamieson)

In ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, South Africa agreed to introduce a range of measures “to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse … including sexual abuse” (Article 19) and to protect children from “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 37) including corporal punishment. The state also promised to address the root causes of abuse and maltreatment by empowering families with “attitudes, skills, capacities and tools” to care for and protect children. 

Finally, South Africa promised to provide services that promote psychological recovery and social reintegration of any child following violence, abuse or neglect (Article 39). 

In short, these rights translate into three levels of obligations on the state, to:

- prevent violence against children;

- protect children from further harm if they have already fallen victim to violence; and 

- support and treat children who have experienced violence.

South Africa has developed several laws and policies to prevent violence against children. The 1997 White Paper on Social Welfare adopted a rights-based approach and presented a vision of developmental social welfare, where abuse could be prevented by focusing not just on individuals but also on their connections to family and the wider community. The Children’s Act provides for a holistic range of interventions for children and their families, including: prevention and early intervention programmes; child protection services; and therapeutic and aftercare services. 

There is one glaring omission: the Children’s Act does not prohibit smacking in the home.  In response to South Africa’s first national report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child clearly stated that corporal punishment violates children’s right to protection and recommended that South Africa ban corporal punishment in all settings. 

While the country’s child protection laws and policies are fairly comprehensive, there is a lack of co-ordination across government departments charged with implementing them. Furthermore, the majority of the limited human and financial resources are absorbed by child protection services, which means responding to abuse after it occurs. As a result the levels of violence against children remain extraordinarily high. In 2013/14 over 45 000 violent crimes against children were reported to the police, including: 

- 1 715 murders and attempted murders; 

- 20 734 assaults; and

- 22 781 sexual offences.

An additional 12875 complaints were classified as “incomplete”.

The police figures represent only a fraction of the real total; for example, a two-province study found that more than half of children experience physical abuse at the hands of a parent, care-giver or teacher, while research from the Eastern Cape showed that 38% of girls and 17% of boys were sexually abused before the age of 18. One of the major failures of the state is that it has not taken the necessary administrative steps to develop a surveillance system to monitor cases of abuse. This means that we cannot tell accurately how many children are victims of violence, or where to target services.

The effects of violence last a lifetime and spark a vicious circle that spans across generations. Children who experience or witness violence are at increased risk of re-victimisation or perpetration later in life; and when they become parents themselves they often lack the ability to bond with their own children and are more inclined to use violence. 

It is essential that South Africa invests resources to fulfill children’s right to protection from violence.  As the causes of violence are complex this will require tackling structural issues such as gender inequality, poverty and poor education, but there are many programmes that have proven effective in altering behaviour and preventing violence.  By adopting a multi-sectoral approach, we will not only protect children’s rights but also stem the tide across the whole of society by breaking the intergenerational cycle of violence.

Lucy Jamieson is one of the editors of the South African Child Gauge 2014, which was released this week by the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town



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