If the moral test of a nation is how that nation treats its most vulnerable members, especially its children, then history will not judge us kindly.
Since numbers don’t lie, let us revisit some of the figures. Last year’s crime statistics revealed that, on average, three children are murdered each day in South Africa. According to children’s organisation, Door of Hope, since the national lockdown, at least 11 babies have been found dead after abandonment. The number of children who have been killed is unknown.
Let us remember, however, that behind each of these numbers there is an actual person who was once a living and breathing human being. May we never forget little Alexia Nyamadzawo; two-month-old baby Nkanyiso; Kuhlekonke, Khwezi and Siphesihle Mpungose; Ayakha Jiyane; and most recently Amahle Quku and the one-day-old baby dumped in a river before he could be named. There are countless other children whose names we will never know.
A country where its most vulnerable citizens — women, children, people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ+ community, among others — are killed indiscriminately is surely in crisis. But in South Africa, violence against women and children is more than a crisis, it is an epidemic.
During the course of history, child killings have been the practice of many cultures. Giving birth to twins at one stage was considered evil and one of them had to be killed. In other cultures, where girls are viewed as weak and a burden on the family, female infanticide is still practised.
Quite shockingly, right up until 1987 in the United States, medical operations were performed on babies without anaesthetics because it was believed that infants felt no pain. Even as late as 1999, it was commonly believed in some circles that children could only feel pain at the age of one. With this type of thinking there is little doubt as to why children and infants are seen and treated as inferior.
The Constitution is very clear when it comes to the rights of children. Section 28(d) underscores that every child has the right “to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”. Yet three are murdered a day.
The murder of children is not a new phenomenon, it is a public health and structural issue which we have been continually facing. It did not start with lockdown, although it may have been amplified during the period of confinement, and it will surely not end with its lifting.
Creating more awareness and programmes to address gender-based violence (GBV) and child abuse, changing society’s perception of children and women, establishing a GBV command centre and passing new legislation are all good initiatives in curbing the scourge of child abuse and killings.
Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that there were three GBV Bills in parliament awaiting approval. The government’s most current strategy is the 2020 Gender-based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan (GBVF-NSP) by the interim steering committee which was established in April last year, after the historic 2018 presidential summit on GBV. On paper, these no doubt show the government’s commitment of government to addressing the scourge. Yet, reality paints a different picture.
Unfortunately, it is not the first time that the government has developed strategies and policies addressing the issue. In 2012, key national policies such as the National Policy Framework on Child Justice and the National Policy Framework on the Management of Sexual Offences were developed. These resulted in the establishment of the inter-sectoral committee on child justice and the inter-sectoral committee on the management of sexual offences respectively. From 2013-2018 there was the South African Integrated Programme of Action Addressing Violence Against Women and Children.
Furthermore, there was the establishment of multi-sectoral partnerships such as the National Council on Gender-Based Violence (NCGBV) and the inter-ministerial committee to investigate the root causes of violence against women and children. Then there was the formation of the National Child Care and Protection Forum (NCCPF) and the National Domestic Violence inter-sectoral committee, among others.
This no doubt begs the question — do we need another policy or strategy or committee or even another summit? The policy is existent, but what needs to be questioned is the will of the departments responsible to implement the key policies. The most recent GBVF-NSP mentions little with regards to addressing the violence against children in practical terms. In this regard, another policy is not the answer.
According to the World Health Organisation, infanticide is rooted in psychosocial and structural factors such as poverty, lack of social support, lack of access to services and dysfunctional relationships.
Therefore, what is required is an on-the-ground, holistic, comprehensive and implementable intervention which acknowledges that infanticide is both a public health and a socio-economic issue.
Such an intervention should prioritise prevention, reproductive health, gender-based violence and child protection services. Moreover, interventions should prioritise women. In nearly two-thirds of murder cases of children, mothers have been identified or suspected as perpetrators.
The pre and post-natal support that women receive in healthcare facilities should go beyond just attending to the physical well-being of pregnant women and mothers. This includes compulsory psychosocial support and parenting initiatives to pregnant women and, where necessary, to extend these to their partners and families.
Prioritising reproductive services also means the need to review practices in the health system, such as access to contraceptives and reducing the stigma surrounding termination of pregnancy. GBV interventions need to educate people on the implications it has on children and the risks thereof.
Developing successful initiatives will require that we identify, understand and record factors (including patterns) that lead to the murder of infants. This would help develop evidence-based and effective intervention initiatives.
One initiative the state can consider adopting and/or drawing lessons from is the Child Death Review (CDR) project. The project was initiated by Professor Shanaaz Mathews to monitor, investigate and lobby for justice for murdered children. The CDR initiative, which has been expanded to all mortuaries in the Western Cape, investigates the cause of child death, seeks justice for the murdered child and, most importantly, prevents other deaths.
There is little doubt that South Africa has some of the most progressive legislation and policies on child protection and children’s rights. What is required to address the scourge of child killings is an intervention strategy that combines preventative public health and socio-economic efforts.
Although in itself such a strategy might not eradicate infanticide, it may help us to protect South Africa’s most vulnerable members, whose lives and cries have been ignored for far too long.