In a classroom in one of South Africa’s better schools, children are well fed and neatly dressed. Doing their best to be the picture of a nation’s potential, their attention vacillates between a capable teacher and the tub of slime marinating in their too-heavy school bags. It is the kind of childhood we want for children in South Africa, perhaps with lighter bags, less homework and no shaving cream repurposed into goo.
But our ideas about what childhood ought to be and what it actually is are contradictory.
For one, the very spaces that are meant to nurture children — homes, schools, play areas — do not necessarily provide protection. Of those children sitting in that classroom, one in three is likely to be a victim of sexual abuse before they turn 18.
A 2016 study published by the University of Cape Town (UCT), the first nationally representative study on child sexual abuse, estimated that at least 784 967 people aged 15 to 17 were sexually abused as children. In Parliament, the police minister reported that 41% of all reported rape cases in the past three years have involved children. In the same period, more than 2600 children were murdered, which constitutes 5% of all murders investigated by police.
But it is where these abuses happen that is most jarring to our notion of safe spaces for children.
Of the young people interviewed by UCT, 35.4% of those interviewed in schools said they had been sexually abused at some point in their lives. In comparison, 26.3% of those interviewed in their homes said they had never experienced sexual abuse. The deduction from this discrepancy is that young people who were interviewed in school may have felt freer to disclose sexual abuse than those interviewed in their homes, so the real rate of sexual abuse may actually be much higher. And this is because more than 80% of children who are sexually assaulted in South Africa are victims of those close to them.
This week, we were haunted by the news of a seven-year-old found bleeding in a restaurant bathroom in Pretoria after a predator lured her from the play area into the restroom and raped her. This case is different to many of the cases of sexual abuse against children in that the predator was a stranger to the child and her family and stalked this child in a public place.
But what is it about our society that gives a man the confidence to sit in a public place and plan a attack on a child in this way?
The current public scrutiny on the levels of violence against children is welcome but we cannot mistake it for action. In the past three years, only 21% of child rape cases and only one in three child murder cases have resulted in successful convictions.
Earlier this year, Justice Minister Michael Masutha said the 20-year limit on prosecutions for sexual offences, femicide and all forms of gender-based violence should be scrapped. This is especially important in light of the high levels of abuse of children. The minister told Parliament that the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 also needs to be reviewed to introduce harsher sentences. That process must be fast-tracked.