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Professionals working to combat child abuse face a tough new world under Covid-19

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Dr Marcel van der Watt is a research fellow at the Free State Centre for Human Rights (University of the Free State). He is the case consultant and a director at the National Freedom Network (NFN).

Child abuse has in all likelihood increased during Covid-19 lockdowns, but the pandemic has made it hard for professionals in the field to get a real grip on the scale of the problem.

As many child protection professionals hesitantly wander into the final week of January 2021, the questions “What have we missed?” and “How much of it?” linger. From child abuse and online child sexual exploitation to the systemic realities of child trafficking, published empirical evidence pointing to a nexus with pandemic experiences remains scant.

The probable future will see us grapple with indelible scars left by the ongoing pandemic as our respective and collective worlds – both personal and professional – are remarkably different today from what they were exactly one year ago. Visceral uncertainty, consuming questions and deep concern are but some of the emotions experienced by professionals; a collective apprehension with the well-being of the child now clothed with novel challenges that demand new ways of thinking, responding and researching.

We have not yet figured this out, but the deep humanity and generosity of spirit couched within the South African and global child protection community are sure to show up in this bewildering arena. What these new ways of thinking, responding and researching would look like in granular detail remains uncertain. Metaphorically, perhaps, we are finding ourselves drawn into an unchoreographed tempestuous tango inflection that is strikingly different from the formulaic two-step that invited us into the pre-pandemic era ballroom.

Adaptation and agility now become key as the whiplashing rhythm shows no mercies for our established two-step skillsets. Egos and introversion must depart as all senses and abled bodies are fully committed to the demanding dance at hand. Creativity is to be welcomed, and both learning and unlearning licensed to shed our traditional outfits in favour of apparel more suited for dexterity and ambiguity. If we don’t continue to show up and dance, ominous others will…

In May 2020, World Vision warned that the estimated one billion children already exposed to violence might escalate by up to 85 million, while “millions more children are at increased long-term risk of child marriage and child labour”.

Similarly, an October 2020 press release by Unicef South Africa raised alarm about the increased risk of abuse and violence faced by South African children resulting from the broad-ranging impact of Covid-19. Available data from Childline South Africa points to an increase of more than 36.8% in calls for help during August 2020, compared with the same month in 2019.

With the staggering numbers of children in Africa who fall prey to physical, sexual and emotional violence – frequently perpetrated in the home of the child or the home of the perpetrator – South Africa’s Child Witness Institute (CWI) poignantly questions how this “normal” state of affairs may be compounded by Covid-19.

During its presentation at the Third South African Violence Conference on 24 November 2020, CWI referred to a number of upward international trends observed during the pandemic, and posited that online sexual abuse perpetrated against South African children has in all likelihood increased. Although pixelated in terms of the exact scope and nature of the pandemic’s residue, this is the volatile arena within which children’s well-being must be nurtured and secured.

A moving sight to behold is when South Africa’s multidisciplinary child protection professionals congregate in one room for the final day of the annual South African Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (SAPSAC) conference, first held in 2000. The closing and release ceremony serves to honour the women and men at the frontlines of child protection issues.

Like atoms, these incredible women and men do not function in isolation. They are part of molecular families intricately woven into a large ecosystem of social workers, psychologists, educators, legal professionals, medical practitioners and police officials. When the ceremony’s music, song and dance crescendos, ululating naturally follows and serves as the tipping point for a rejuvenating chemical reaction.

Albeit momentarily, the burdening reminders of caseloads, child abuse and, on a personal level, vicarious trauma, dissipate. Tears flow naturally.

For the first time in two decades, this revitalising session did not happen in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions. Therefore, spare a thought, say a prayer and use whatever means possible to give a socially distanced hug to those at the frontlines of child protection, whether in South Africa or elsewhere in the world.

These women and men will continue to show up and dance. However, the steps are more difficult and the movements more contorted than in yesteryear. DM

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