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21 December 2014 12:26 (South Africa)
South Africa

SA's Child Gauge 2012: Suffer the little children

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
Rebecca

Almost 40% of South Africa’s population is younger than 18 years old, and most South African children are poor. That’s what the 7th annual Child Gauge report boils down to: the data that tells us what life is like for SA kids. It’s bleak stuff: children are more likely than adults to be living in poor households, and inequality is rising. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Why would it be useful to consider the socio-economic conditions of children as separate from adults? After all, the adults set the conditions for the children, don’t they? This is a question answered by Catherine Hall, senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, and UCT’s Southern Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU)’s Ingrid Woolard, in an essay in the Child Gauge report. For one thing, they write, patterns of inequality are quite different for adults and children. Children are more likely to live in poor households because those households will be larger, and income therefore needs to be stretched among more people.

For another thing, inequality has particular consequences for children. This is particularly the case in the “first 1,000 days” of a child’s life, where there is a never-repeated window to fulfil a child’s physical and psychological needs, through nutrition and stimulation, in a way that can have lasting consequences if these needs are unmet. It has been found that investment into early childhood development can do more than practically anything else to alleviate poverty. 

Thirdly, there’s the fact that inequality within a generation of children is a marker of the likelihood that inequality will persist into the next generation. In other words, by studying inequality among children, we can come to better understand the causes of inequality among our current crop of adults.  

For all these reasons, the ‘Child Gauge’ is a really fascinating publication. The fruits of a collaboration between UCT’s Children’s Institute, UCT’s Southern Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) and UNICEF, it was described by a member of the audience at its launch as being a “Bible”, particularly for anyone working within child rights or on social justice issues. What the Child Gauge does is present the reader with a holistic view of the issues which impact on childhood in South Africa, ranging from education to healthcare to living environment. 

The report is unusual, as UCT deputy vice-chancellor Crain Soudien pointed out at the launch, because it represents serious academic research which has been turned into extremely accessible information. “The Child Gauge is an example of how cutting-edge research can be packaged in ways that are not only intelligible, but take the public seriously,” Soudien said, calling it a “rare piece of work” not just in South Africa, but internationally as well. 

The packaging may be easily digestible, but the results are less so. One of the report’s buzz phrases is “multiple deprivation”, referring to the fact that many of South Africa’s children are negatively impacted by social problems in several ways at once: poor schooling, no transport, lack of running water, unemployed parents, inadequate nutrition, down to something as basic as lacking any proof that they even exist – many South African children do not possess birth certificates because their births were never registered.

Catherine Hall, a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute, prefaced her remarks on the report’s findings by noting that “the Constitution is a tool, but not self-executing”. In other words, while the Constitution promises everyone equal rights, the circumstances they are born into are from equal. Hall said, depressingly, that circumstances of birth may be so determinative that “life trajectories are pre-determined unless something intervenes”. And in the case of some of South Africa’s children, it’s hard to see just what that “something” could be.

Child Gauge 2012 is divided into three parts: ‘Children & Law Reform’, an explanation of recent legislative developments and challenges; ‘Children & Inequality’ – a set of ten essays exploring the nature and extent of income inequality – and ‘Children Count’, which presents the child-centred data.

When it comes to legal reform, the last few years have brought some promising developments, and some problems. While the Children’s Act of 2010 brought in a “comprehensive range of social services for children and their families and introduces a new developmental approach to SA’s child care and protection system”, a flaw is that its drafting is ambiguous. For example, at one point it states that orphaned children who live with family members are eligible to receive a Foster Child Grant, and at another point it says that this arrangement does not constitute fostering.

A further issue comes down to bureaucracy and South Africa’s over-strained systems. Foster care orders have to be renewed every two years, but this often doesn’t happen because social workers and magistrate courts often can’t keep track of which are expiring. But without a foster care order, you lose your Foster Child Grant. A total of 113,000 children lost Foster Care Grants between 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2011.

Then there’s the controversial Criminal Law (Sexual Offences & Related Matters) Amendment Act. Currently the Act makes consensual sexual penetration between children aged 12 to 16 a crime. Kissing and other acts are also an offence. Critics argue that criminalising teenage sex “potentially violates a number of children’s rights enshrined in the Constitution and international law, namely, the best interests principle, the right to bodily and psychological integrity, and the right to privacy.”

The Children’s Institute also notes that the Act amounts to a big ethical problem for doctors and nurses. In terms of the Act, they are legally required to report this kind of sexual activity, but that contravenes patients’ right to confidentiality. If they know they are likely to get reported, teenagers are also much less likely to seek health or counselling services. 

The most contentious piece of legislation on the books at the moment is, of course, the Traditional Courts Bill. Among the ways in which children will be affected by it, posits the Children’s Institute, is the question of who will have the right to decide which legal system has jurisdiction over a child, particularly if a child lives with relatives rather than parents. They point out, too, that the Traditional Courts Bill will result in greater legal rights for children living in urban areas. Urban kids will be allowed legal representation, be able to participate in closed court sessions and will be protected from sentences amounting to child labour. If the Bill passes in its current form, rural children will be deprived of all of these.

But it’s not all bad news on the legal front – among more positive developments, there’s the fact that amendments made to Social Assistance Act regulations in August 2011 and March 2012 now allow refugees to claim the Child Support Grant and Care Dependency Grant, which they were previously ineligible for.   

When it comes to the grants, there are a lot of children who benefit. A total of 11,227,832 children receive the Child Support Grant, while 572,903 kids get the Foster Care Grant. And 117,246 children receive the Care Dependency Grant, for children with severe disabilities. In the poorest 20% of South African households, almost 70% of the income is derived from grants. Hall called the social grants “a success story”: they are an essential intervention to fulfil some of a child’s basic needs, and they are well-targeted, pro-poor, and with a wide reach. 

But, she added, the grant amounts are not enough to make a dent on inequality. This is because the gulfs within this country are just so vast, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of that. The poorest 10% of the South African population claims less than 1% of the national income. The richest 10% has almost 60% of the income. Hall called this state of affairs “arguably the most pressing problem facing this country”. 

Kids in rural areas have it worst. The majority of the poorest children live in rural areas, while over 80% of the richest children live in urban areas. The areas of maximum deprivation for children match the old Bantustan boundaries on a map with uncanny accuracy, and 43% of children live in those former homelands. Almost all coloured, Indian and white kids live in urban areas, while more than half of all black children grow up outside the cities. But urbanity is no guarantor of income – here, too, inequality is still rife.

The simple fact is that most South African children are poor. Sixty percent of the child population of this country lives on less than R575 per month. There are huge racial discrepancies within these figures. As of 2010, almost 70% of black kids are poor, while less than 2% of white children are poor. However, in one of the report’s essays, by Hall and SALDRU’s Ingrid Woolard, they clarify: “Unequal poverty rates are not the consequence of race; rather inequality between races is correlated with a range of other factors, such as location, adult employment and parental education, which are themselves correlated.”

The grim litany continues. Thirty-six percent of children do not have access to piped water in their homes. Only one-third of South African children live in households with both their fathers and their mothers present. If there’s only one parent around, it’s almost invariably the mother. Single fathers make up just 4% of urban households and 3% of rural households. Single mothers, on the other hand, constitute 36% of urban households and 43% of rural households. These factors are not trivial. Children who live with both parents are likely to belong to the wealthiest households. Children who live only with their mothers are likely to be the poorest, owing to the gender disparity in earnings and employment opportunities that prevails to this day. 

When it comes to education, there are some curious figures. For instance, the reported attendance among South African schoolkids up until the age of about 14 is almost universal – verging on 100%. By 18 years old, however, the attendance rate has dropped to only 71%. The main reason for dropping out of school is given as the cost of education, followed by the perception that education is useless – a fact that will be grist to Jonathan Jansen’s mill, since one of the UFS rector’s claims is that communities have lost a sense of respect for education. However high or low the attendance figures are, however, they are virtually meaningless when considered independently of the quality of education being received within the school.

Minister Trevor Manuel, who wrote the foreword to the Child Gauge and gave the keynote address at its launch, voiced another Jansen-ism when he said that responsibility for education could not fall solely on Angie Motshekga’s shoulders. With reference to the Limpopo textbook disaster, Manuel asked: Why did the teachers not come out toyi-toyiing because they didn’t have their tools of trade? Why did the parents not notice that no homework was being assigned? Why did the governing bodies not pick up that something was wrong? Why did places of worship, or community meetings, not talk about the problem in their schools? Everyone was outsourcing responsibility, he said.

Still, there are some social issues which ordinary citizens can’t be expected to fix. Among them, healthcare – and the fact that only 12% of doctors and 19% of nurses work in rural areas. In 2010, South Africa had an estimated 518,000 HIV-positive children aged between 0 and 14 years – the highest number of any country in the world. The good news is that HIV testing is on the rise – for adults, at least. In 2011, 98,8% of pregnant women were given an HIV test. Seventy percent of infants who had been exposed to HIV were tested, but this is far lower than the target of 85%. It is an unbelievably cruel fact that children are exposed to HIV through adults, yet child access to treatment and testing lags behind that which is available for adults. 

When it comes to child health, one curious omission from the Child Gauge is mention of sexual assaults – or other violence – against children, as a member of the audience pointed out at Wednesday’s launch. We know from last month’s crime stats release that the figures are shockingly high: 40% of all reported sexual offences for the year leading up to April 2012 were committed against children, and 25,862 children were reported sexually assaulted in some way. To build up a truly well-rounded picture of a child’s social opportunities and challenges in this country, it might be useful to have this data incorporated.

The “cycle must be broken”, was an opt-repeated phrase at the report’s launch. Children born in 2012 will turn 18 in 2030: the gap needs to be closed. But, to quote Manuel, “Now that we know, what are we doing to do about it?” The report advocates certain practical steps. Its authors call for adherence to the National Development Plan; ploughing money into Early Childhood Development initiatives, the continuation and possible extension of social grants; and the instituting of the National Health Insurance to “promote a more equitable sharing of health resources between the private and public sectors”.    

Child Gauge 2012 makes it clear that the eradication of inequality between children is a gigantic task. But it also makes it evident that there is no real alternative. At the risk of invoking Whitney Houston-esque clichés, there’s no getting away from the fact that current children are future adults. If the social problems which affect them are not addressed now, their legacies will be with us for a long time. DM

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  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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