The 2030 Agenda for children
This year has been a milestone for the international community, helping to shape the vision for the world that we want in the next 15 years and beyond. We want a world in which children can grow, survive and thrive in prosperity; where they are healthy, educated and free from violence. What has been particularly exciting is the inclusion in the 2030 Agenda of a target to end violence against children.
The issue of child protection was notably absent from the Millennium Development Goals. In contrast, the 2030 Agenda includes numerous targets aimed at preventing violence. SDG Target 5.2 relates to the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. SDG Target 5.3 calls for the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, while SDG Target 16.1 calls for the significant reduction of all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere. Finally, SDG Target 16.2 calls for an end to abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against children.
Despite the progress we have made as a country in the last 21 years, South Africa continues to face a number of historically persistent and emerging risks that are not adequately addressed by the current child protection system and which continue to present a challenge to the realisation of children’s rights. A huge number of South African children continue to live in homes in which those challenges remain high and impact significantly on their quality of life and the enjoyment of their rights.
A larger percentage of children than adults live in poverty; this poverty affects them more aggressively than it does adults. Child poverty is dispersed unequally according to historical fault lines, including children from the former bantustans, in rural areas, in female-headed households, and black and coloured children, who continue to bear an inconsistent share of the poverty burden.
These children are less likely to escape poverty because they remain excluded from the quality services and programmes that are necessary to break free from the poverty trap. The structural nature of child poverty has entangled poor and socially marginalised children in an intergenerational cycle of poverty and as a result, the majority of those born into poverty are likely to remain caught in this cycle.
In addition to the poverty trap, it is unsafe for children to live in South Africa. The statistics showing very high levels of violence, abuse and exploitation of children do not reflect the full extent of the problem, because countless such cases go unreported. Broad public attitudes and beliefs exacerbate the situation, as they are often marked by a tolerance of violence against children and an acceptance of the notion that child maltreatment cannot be prevented. Children in South Africa frequently face repetitive violence from their parents, teachers and peers.
These challenges are happening despite the legal framework that compels South Africa to take the necessary steps to ensure that children are protected from all forms of abuse, neglect, violence and exploitation. Yet despite the sophisticated legal framework that is in place, at both national and international levels, South Africa continues to be marked by high levels of violence against children.
Failures in the child protection system
These problems point to fundamental failures in the national child protection system. Firstly, the system is inadequately designed, targeted and implemented to enable the most vulnerable children to escape the poverty trap. Secondly, in terms of its targeting and design, the protection system has been shaped to respond to historical, or legacy, risks and the vulnerable groups these engender; for this same reason it is at times out of synch with emerging vulnerable groups and incapable of addressing their rights.
The system has long recognised the particular vulnerabilities of children, having developed a tapestry of social protection interventions that make additional and compensatory provision for services to help realise their rights. While this has made a positive difference, the overall programmatic framework has neglected children in urban and metro areas, resulting in unchecked levels of deprivation in these sites of increased child poverty, thereby giving rise to an emerging vulnerable group in urban, informal areas.
Addressing child poverty and inequality systemically and sustainably requires programmes to ensure the universal provision of quality services that have been designed and delivered specifically to reach socially excluded and vulnerable children. Legislation specifically obliges South Africa to prioritise the development, implementation and provision of parenting support and other child protection services designed to meet the heightened risk and special needs of vulnerable children.
The Agenda 2030 targets on violence against children offer an important new opportunity for us to prioritise the protection of children. The South African government should make a new commitment to investing in preventing violence against children and to building the systems that make societies a safe place in which children can thrive. Obviously, the government cannot tackle this issue on its own, hence a new partnership with civil society, business and other stakeholders can be a critical vehicle for galvanising greater investment in solutions that will reduce violence in the lives of children and improve the chances of success of the SDG agenda as a whole.
This partnership for ending violence and protecting children can play a catalytic role in demonstrating how violence against children can most effectively be reduced. We have a unique opportunity to work together in partnership and to commit political will, capacities and resources to give children the best possible chances to grow and thrive and be protected from violence, and to realise their human rights.
Moreover, in partnership, we can build on the inclusion of ending violence against children in the SDGs, to make violence against children unacceptable and to work with community, traditional, and religious leaders and with parents and teachers to challenge and transform social norms that accept and justify violence against children. These activities might include raising awareness among parents and social workers of the detrimental effects of violent discipline; social and community mobilisation on the harm of entrenched gender roles; encouraging fathers to become involved in caring for their children and breaking the inter-generational transmission of violence.
It is everyone’s role to advocate and support governments to ensure that there are good policies, laws and implementation mechanisms in place to tackle violence against children and equally to tackle the inequalities which put some children particularly at risk, as this has a significant effect on the incidence of violent crime.
Studies have shown a link in South Africa between societal and income inequalities with violence against children. Living in impoverished conditions constitutes an important risk factor for violence against children. Therefore to tackle violence against children, the government must also examine the underlying causes, such as socioeconomic conditions.
We should not forget that we are to do this with and for children; if silenced and passive, they can be abused by adults with relative impunity. Providing children with information, raising awareness of their rights, encouraging them to articulate their concerns, and introducing safe and accessible mechanisms for challenging violence and abuse are key strategies for providing effective protection and are critical in combating violence against children. Children have the right to shape this partnership and associated fund and participate in them fully.
Nelson Mandela once said that the true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. What character do we have as a nation if, 21 years since the dawn of democracy, the majority of the children of South Africa are still not living the dream that Mandela and others fought for?
Abongile Sipondo is the head of Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children South Africa