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Like sweeping leaves in a cyclone, Child Protection Week echoes with empty promises

Like sweeping leaves in a cyclone, Child Protection Week echoes with empty promises
Children in Ocean View take part in a demonstration and blockade Kommetjie road in protest against the lack of policing in their area in Cape Town, South Africa 22 September 2017. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

It’s the end of another Child Protection Week, proof positive of a government without a cohesive funded strategy for child protection, or anything related to children, and one seemingly unaware of the extent of the crisis. 

If you recognised the name of government’s 2023 Child Protection Week campaign: “Let’s all protect children through Covid-19 and beyond”, it’s because it was the title of the 2022 campaign, and the 2021 one, and the 2020 one. The content on the official government website is also a copy and paste from the last three years.

It’s why when asked in an eNCA interview at the launch of the week if Covid was the most critical challenge for children, the Minister of Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu accurately replied that the campaign was developed while Covid was still a factor.

She did stress however that the “and beyond” allowed room for the week to address all the many ills our children are currently facing.

While that’s apposite, the department could have steered clear of any Covid references, given that government missed many vital opportunities to protect children during the pandemic and that children continue to be affected.

The psycho-social impact of the pandemic is still largely unmanaged. Government has also been slow to acknowledge its role in the mass closure of early childhood development centres and its failure to recognise increases in the numbers of orphans and abandoned children, or respond meaningfully to escalations in teen pregnancies, violence and exploitation, or those suffering from malnutrition and stunting.

Consequently, it might have been opportune for the Department of Social Development (DSD) to revert to its pre-Covid campaign title: “Let’s protect children to move South Africa forwards”, notable because it links the well-being of children to the future of the country.

According to activists and academics, who stress the importance of extending child protection to the prevention of a myriad of adverse childhood experiences such as hunger, poverty, poor housing, inadequate early childhood development and schooling, abandonment, deprivation of family care, violence, homicide, and a lack of opportunity, economic mobility and social capital, the picture is a bleak one.

How big is the problem?

The shadow report submitted to the African Union by the South African National Child Rights Coalition (SANCRC) and statistics and analysis compiled by the Children’s Institute, both drawing from multiple global and local studies, reveal how dire our children’s situation is.

In 2020, 62.1% of South African children lived in multiple deprivation poverty, measured by their access to combined services and support: income support, health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, and protection.

Historically marginalised children experience much higher deprivations. In 2022, more than a third of children in South Africa lived below the food poverty line of R663 per month. This has been exacerbated by below-inflation increases for the Child Support Grant (CSG), leaving families poorer and children hungrier.

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group found that in May 2023 the CSG (R500) was 25% below the food poverty line (R663) and 45% below the average cost to secure a basic nutritious diet for a child (R901,19).

Of every 1,000 children born in South Africa, 28 die before their fifth birthday. Half of all child deaths in hospitals are associated with malnutrition. Only 23% of children between six and 23 months receive a minimum acceptable diet.

Further, 30% of boy children and 25% of girl children under the age of five are stunted, meaning that they cannot reach their full growth and development potential because of the irreversible physical and cognitive damage caused by persistent nutritional deprivation. Stunted children are more vulnerable to disease and cannot learn effectively, are more likely to drop out of school, struggle with unemployment and live in poverty as adults. Stunting exacerbates the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality that the government keeps promising to eradicate.

The Thrive by Five Index indicated that 57% of children attending an Early Learning Programme (ELP) were not on track for cognitive and, or physical development.

The World Bank’s Human Capital Index from 2021 showed that children born in South Africa today will only develop to 43% of their potential, compared to a global average of 56%. A 2015 study by Save the Children South Africa estimated that this loss of human capital equated to roughly R238-billion (about 6% of that year’s GDP).

In 2016, only 51% of 20–24-year-olds had completed matric or its equivalent. Less than 20% of children in no-fee schools achieved above the lowest international benchmark in maths.

Further, the quality of this schooling is so poor. Children who received 10.2 years of schooling have effectively only received an estimated 5.6 years. The recent Pirls report indicated that in 2021, 81% of Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language. Accompanying analysis showed that many children lost up to a year of learning during the pandemic.

A year following the pandemic’s end, only the Western Cape has a learning catch-up plan.

A 2016 Optimus study found that 42% of children had experienced some form of maltreatment (whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect), while 82% experienced victimisation (whether criminal or exposure to family or community violence).

Further, 34.4% of adolescents reported having been hit, beaten, kicked or physically hurt by an adult caregiver over their lifetime. Approximately one in every three adolescents (girls and boys) have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Community studies show far higher rates of exposure and trauma, 99% in Soweto, and 80% in Khayelitsha.

The Birth to Thirty study published in 2022 assessed a broad range of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) from physical and sexual abuse to exposure to community violence and poverty. Results indicate that 87% of children in the sample were exposed to four or more adverse childhood experiences, and that by age 18, only 9% of the sample hadn’t been exposed to a single ACE.

Some contributing factors to the problems

Civil society contends that historical challenges have been exacerbated by government’s evident failure to prioritise, plan or budget for the protection of children.

Despite government’s tacit acceptance that prioritising children is essential for the country, government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework (MTSF) 2019–2025 which spotlights women, youth and those with disabilities, makes no mention of children.

In addition, the president’s 2023 State of the Nation Address (Sona) only included children in the context of early childhood development and gender-based violence (where violence against them is conflated with that against women, despite women often being the perpetrators).

Further, the president promised in Sona that grants would be increased to cushion the poor against inflation.

However, the national budget failed to respond to the increasing gap between the Food Poverty Line and the value of the CSG, especially as food inflation rates continue to be almost double the CPI inflation, increasing to 13.8% in January 2023. Treasury again only committed to below-inflation increases in the CSG and Foster Care Grants (FCG).

The budget made no further mention of children or their development.

While the under-resourced and inept DSD is “in the forefront” of child protection, children’s services collectively are fragmented across multiple government departments including health, home affairs, education, and justice, with an evident lack of coordination, oversight and planning from the presidency.

What can be done?

Activists suggest the following:

1 Elevate children to a strategic priority and plan, budget and resource the sector accordingly

Civil society recommends that the state, at the highest levels of the Presidency, premiers’ and mayors’ offices, acknowledge that to implement the country’s treaty responsibilities and uphold its Constitution, South Africa needs a national child rights governance system overseen by an effective and resourced Office on the Rights of the Child (ORC) located in the Presidency, but not in the Department of Women.

The achievement of children’s rights to equality, to survive and to develop to their full potential should be recognised as national development priority in the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and included in government’s Sona and Sopa addresses.

The Ministry of Finance should recognise children’s development as a national priority and budget accordingly.

Improving the outcomes for children should be monitored and authorities held accountable for failure to realise specific outcomes.

2 Eliminate ‘the slow violence of child hunger’

This requires government to recognise that it can no longer economise on the CSG or ignore the cost to the country of keeping the quantum of the grant, which studies have shown contributes to better health, nutrition and educational outcomes for children, below the food poverty line. This economising, according to Katherine Hall and Paula Proudlock of the Children’s Institute, is achieved by taking: “food from the mouths of children.” 

Further, Dr Chantell Witten states that government needs to address its macro food policy. She says that in South Africa, retailers are making profits against the hunger curve. The Grow Great zero-stunting campaign has identified 10 nutritious foods for child development. To dramatically minimise stunting, it is campaigning to make these 10 foods (which include eggs, peanut butter, full cream milk, dried beans, tinned fish and bread) 20% cheaper by asking retailers to waive their markups and government to subsidise these products. 

Moreover, government must take its constitutional duty to provide food for learners through the National School Nutritional Programme (NSNP) seriously. Global studies show how school feeding programmes can improve school attendance, and children’s ability to learn. The NSNP supplements the nutrition of half of all children in South Africa.

Following the closure and partial reinstatement of the NSNP during lockdown, the high court confirmed that the right to basic education and the child’s right to basic nutrition is an unqualified right, and asked for “the justice of eating”. It ordered the Department of Education to reinstitute the programme for all 9.6 million children regardless of if they’d returned to school. 

Yet, in April and May 2023, more than a million children in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape went hungry after a change to the procurement system in KZN and failure to pay subsidies timeously in the EC. 

Heart-breaking headlines reported children crying from hunger, schools closing early because children could not learn, and children begging for food on the streets. According to Section 27, these failures “pointed to broader problems with the funding and administration of the NSNP.” 

Advocacy groups note that the executive and Parliament’s response holding the respective provincial departments of education accountable was heartening, but this was another graphic example of government indifference, resulting in what the high court judge called, “the obscenity of hunger”.

While the NSNP is a priority, food for children in early childhood development is not. The government subsidy to registered ECDs to prepare food for children is a paltry R6.80 per child per day. More troubling, only 33% of ECDs, 627,000 children, receive government subsidies, so most under-fives (the age when stunting occurs) don’t receive government subsidies for food. Both the registration requirements and quantum of the subsidy need urgent attention. 

Another strategic intervention against stunting is to extend the CSG to pregnant women to ensure adequate nutrition during pregnancy. A 2021 Embrace, Grow Great, and Stellenbosch University study found that pregnant women in the poorest communities were going hungry, experiencing poor mental health and economic insecurity, which was negatively affecting their children’s development and extending intergenerational cycles of poverty.

The study showed that extending grants to pregnant women would increase the grant budget by a mere 1.5% and have a significant impact on infant health and development. 

3 Focus on prevention of violence and child homicide

Extending the CSG to pregnant mothers is also critical to minimise the number of mothers abandoning their babies for financial reasons.

In addition, government needs to be held accountable for its unwillingness to legalise the safe relinquishment of babies through baby savers. Unsafe infant abandonment, often the only option in the absence of safe relinquishment, leads to psychological and physical scarring, ongoing trauma, and frequently results in death.

In 2021, civil society attempted to introduce amendments to the Children’s Act to legalise safe relinquishment, but was opposed by the DSD who considered the life-saving amendments “unconstitutional”. As government stonewalls, more children die.

Moreover, studies have shown that while government is pouring money into policing and the criminal justice system, less than 1% of the DSD’s annual budget is spent on violence prevention or early intervention despite evidence that preventing children from witnessing and experiencing violence stops the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage.

A redirection of funds to violence prevention and family strengthening initiatives is critical for children’s protection. 

4 Facilitate safe family care 

In 2020, South Africa had 2.9 million orphans and by December 2022, a further 168,200 had lost their primary caregiver to Covid. While many orphans are in safe family care, they are, by definition, at greater risk of poverty, abuse, and exploitation. 

Yet, adoption rates declined to a paltry 849 in 2020/2021, a 65% drop in the last 10 years, the foster care system has been broken for more than a decade, and without sufficient alternative family care, plans to deinstitutionalise children present a real danger  

Further, while the department prioritises family care for children, it’s less willing to fund parenting programmes and other resources necessary to make those families a safe space. This, despite children emphasising the need for their parents to get skills and psychosocial support to parent them more effectively.

5 Consistently and adequately resource the helpers

Violence prevention for children requires the active and engaged presence of social workers in communities. But although the National Development Plan calls for 55,000 social workers by 2030, in March 2023, Minister Zulu reported that there were only 22,000 social workers employed in public service (across all sectors). The department aims to grow the number to 31,744 by 2030 at an estimated cost of R9-billion. It’s positive, but even if achieved, that’s still 23,256 social workers too few.

The situation for NGOs is even more desperate. In a Western Cape Child Protection Alliance press statement released for Child Protection Week 2023, 70% of the child protection services in the province claim that although NGOs in the Western Cape provide 55% of child protection services, their subsidies have remained stagnant for the last five years, despite inflation. The upshot is that funding has diminished by 20-25% during the period.

In Gauteng, analysis done by activist Lisa Vetten revealed that its 2023 budget contained a massive 31.4% drop in funding to social welfare services including a 21.1% budget cut to programmes working with families, and a 4.6% drop in funding to community care programmes. Child protection organisations were obligated to provide the same services to the same numbers of children with as much as a 60% cut in salaries.

The Gauteng premier walked back the changes following a national public outcry, but the drastic cuts are not unprecedented and NGOs hit the headlines complaining of late or non-payment of subsidies resulting in increasing risk of NGO closures at the beginning of every financial year.

Such closures are disastrous given government’s lack of resources and its cost structures, on average two to three times higher than those of non-profits. The effect would be increasing non-delivery of services to children, incomprehensible if child protection is indeed a priority.

6 Recognise the role of education in child protection

No one questions the role of education in lifting children out of poverty with its concomitant risks of exposure to violence and adverse childhood experiences. In addition, keeping children in school should be a critical priority since, “without the protection afforded by educational systems, including access to school feeding programmes, millions of children, particularly girls, are at higher risk of violence, exploitation, neglect, malnutrition and online abuse”.

Drop-out rates are therefore concerning. While the department lauded the 65% of learners who completed a matric or TVET national certificate in 2022, MPs paint a different picture. In Gauteng alone, 260,000 learners did not return to school in 2022. Parliamentarians believe that for children to stay in school, government needs to “build more schools, improve teaching and learning to a better quality, give schools and educators the best tools to make a success of our children’s future.” And, we could add, fix broken infrastructure in the existing schools.

But, although government allocated R22-billion to basic education in the most recent budget, statistics show that in real terms the percentage of GDP allocated to education has dropped from 20.5% of GDP in 2001 to 18.42% in 2023.

7 Elevate the voices of children 

During Child Protection Week media briefings, the minister emphasised the importance of hearing children’s voices, which the department does primarily through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament. While it’s progress for government to get feedback from children, there’s no process to ensure that input from the children’s parliament affects government policy or practices.

Nor is the children’s parliament representative. Conspicuous by their absence are the voices of the stunted children forced to drop out of school because they don’t have the cognitive ability to cope with the rigours of learning, and those whose caregivers can only afford to feed them one meal a day because the grant doesn’t stretch to the end of the month. 

Nor do we hear from the children who left school to beg for food when the NSNP meals didn’t arrive, or those who go hungry every second day because their province’s NSNP meals are so small and insufficient that “stokvelling” them with a friend and only eating twice a week seems better than eating too little every day. 

Absent are the stories of the physically or sexually abused or abandoned children who don’t always live to tell them.

Like the four-year-old toddler from Durban whose mother tied her hands with tape and then drowned her in a bucket full of water because she was “difficult and troubling her”, or the seven- and nine-year-old girls from Port Shepstone who were raped by their 19-year-old brother and step-father; the girls whose mother hit them and then bathed them repeatedly to remove the evidence after they told her about the abuse.

We’re lacking the voice of the Grade 10 pupil whose teacher asked her and other learners for sex to improve their marks, and the children, aged six and 14 who were murdered and left in a burning house by their mother’s ex-boyfriend.

And poignantly, we cannot hear the voice of a tiny newborn whose mother abandoned him in a pit latrine in an informal settlement in Pietermaritzburg shortly after his birth. His rescue by members of the community was heralded as a miracle, but he died in hospital the following day.

Responding to his death, a representative of the DSD inadvertently identified the root problem when he said that “the incident is extremely troubling, especially now during Child Protection Month. What is strange is some people in our communities are aware of what the department is capable of doing.” He then went on to tell women to take their unwanted children to “social workers, police stations and clinics so they can get assistance.”

It was said without irony, despite the department’s fierce opposition to safe relinquishment laws that would allow desperate women to relinquish their unwanted children without the consequence of being turned away or risking arrest, and despite the department reputedly often doing very little to help.

At the heart of the issue is that while it is “in our hands to stop the cycle of neglect, abuse, violence and exploitation of children”, government cannot be outraged when a tragedy occurs during Child Protection Week when it failed to acknowledge or use careful strategy, planning and resourcing to eliminate the root cause in the remainder of the year.

Nor, if it was honest, should the DSD’s messaging champion the Constitution or the rights of the child. While it is true that “children in South Africa live in a society with a Constitution that has the highest regard for their rights and for the equality and dignity of everyone” and that “protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse is not only a basic value, but also an obligation clearly set out in Article 28 of the South African Constitution,” there is no dignity in children starving to death, or drowning in a pit latrine unacknowledged and unaided by the authorities whose job is to protect them.

Without effective support at the highest level, Child Protection Week is analogous to sweeping leaves in a cyclone.

Unquestionably it’s time to pack away the pins and campaign promises and instead build children’s rights into the country’s strategic plans, budgets and structures, and resource it accordingly. Only then should we really claim to be upholding children’s rights to protection from violence, their right to dignity, and claim that we are acting in their best interests. DM


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