Experts are linking the high suicide rate among school pupils in South Africa to the increasing number of orphaned children.
According to the Eastern Cape department of education’s learner mortality report, 106 children committed suicide in the Eastern Cape last year, followed by 96 deaths between January and June.
Loyiso Pulumani, spokesperson for the department, said the children were between 12 and 18 years old, although there had been incidents involving children as young as eight.
“These children are mostly from rural districts and are poor and in a state of hopelessness,” said Pulumani. “In the Transkei we have a lot of child-headed households; parents have left for work. Kids are bringing themselves up and with the added pressure of school, like bullying and the pressure to do well, and the lack of support systems, it gets too much.”
Susan Potgieter, director of Lifeline Port Elizabeth, said the number of children who committed suicide had not necessarily increased, but more people were reporting the deaths.
“Emotional wellness is a big issue in the Eastern Cape,” she said. “If you look at the crime statistics, the murder rate is highest in the Eastern Cape. This has an effect on communities and on their children. There have also been many retrenchments in the motor industry based in the Eastern Cape, which has left many child-headed households. You also have to look at the desperate situation in schools in the province — books haven’t arrived; some don’t have toilets and running water.”
Potgieter said there was also a lack of counsellors in schools.
“In one session where we brought a counsellor into a school there were six girls who admitted they had been sexually abused. We need professionals in schools who can identify a child that is suicidal.”
The Eastern Cape, however, is not the only province facing these problems.
Nothile Ndlovu, a facilitator at the Children’s Rights Centre in Durban, said 154 children committed suicide in KwaZulu-Natal in 2007, the last year for which statistics were available.
Dumisile Nala, chief executive of Childline South Africa, agreed that the issue “definitely goes beyond the Eastern Cape”.
“It is maybe more emphasised in the Eastern Cape because of the issue of poverty and because of the rural component, which causes emotional difficulties for children. We don’t have figures from other provinces so we can’t compare. But we know that KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo have many similar challenges.”
Nala said in her experience children who hurt themselves were often battling with depression, loneliness and a lack of self-confidence, issues about their sexuality, or physical or sexual abuse. But she also attributed the suicide rate to children having lost their parents to HIV/Aids.
According to a presidency report, the Situation Analysis of Children in South Africa, almost four million children had lost one or both of their parents in 2006. Of these children, 18% had lost both their parents, and 26% of orphans were found in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
This year’s draft green paper on families, drawn up by the department of social development, contained a study by the South African Institute of Race Relations which indicated that “almost 25% of the country’s under-18s were growing up without their biological parents. The number had increased by about 100000 a year, from 3.7-million in 2002 to 4.2-million in 2007. The number of children who had lost one or both parents to Aids stood at 1.4-million — more than in many African countries.”
Linda Naidoo, director of Childline in KwaZulu-Natal, said an increasing number of orphans were phoning the organisation’s call centre. But she was hopeful that a provision in the Children’s Amendment Act of 2007 would bring about change, because it recommended appointing a person to assist child-headed households with their care.
“The important thing now is finding these kids,” she said. “We need to look at where these kids are and how we can place them.”