March is Human Rights Month, a time to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. Given South Africa’s traumatic past, it is comforting to note the many positive developments over the past 26 years in legislative reform, creating institutional capacity to advance human rights, such as the Human Rights Commission, the Gender Commission, the Equality Court and even the Office of the Commissioner for Children in the Western Cape.
However, recent events compel me to flag the glaring statistics and pervasive phenomenon of children’s rights violations and rampant abuse.
It is common knowledge that section 28 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution states that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, healthcare and social services, as well as the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”. So what is amiss? Where are we going wrong and why are we failing our children?
Law is never framed in a vacuum and the very inclusion of these provisions in the Bill of Rights is indicative of the underlying malaise. Nutrition, shelter, healthcare, education and other social services are very real issues we grapple with as a society. To some extent we have made substantive progress in respect of nutrition through the school feeding scheme that eases the plight of about 12 million schoolchildren every day, universal free basic education, access to primary healthcare and other social services such as counselling for victims of abuse.
But that’s where the tyre hits the track. South Africa remains an extremely violent and traumatised society and violence and abuse of children is systemic. We have to do the hard work to unearth the root causes and find sustainable solutions. We owe it to our children and the future of this nation to do much more to rid our country of this scourge.
South Africa has high levels of domestic violence, gender-based violence, gun violence, gang violence and death at the hands of the police as well as the killing of police. Children are affected by all of these categories.
Last week, the case of Nathaniel Julies, a Down’s syndrome teenager who was gunned down by police in Eldorado Park, Gauteng in 2020, made headlines again with the trial date for the three accused set for 19 March 2021. This case represents all that is wrong in our society and the triple jeopardy that someone like Nathaniel faces: disabled, disadvantaged and a vulnerable teen. While there are allegations he was killed in the crossfire of police-gang warfare, this is an almost daily phenomenon in some areas of the Cape Flats.
In an open letter to the president, a 23-year-old complained that “there is absolutely no freedom because of the high volumes of crime taking place. One can never move without fear in the neighbourhood; it’s constantly a factor that has to be considered when going anywhere.” A Hanover Park teen spoke about dodging bullets at school. Just this weekend, around the corner from where my parents live and I grew up, children were mowed down in another senseless drug and gang turf war. The gang situation has become so severe that many are calling for tougher measures to save the lives of our children.
Some have even called for shutting down drug dens and the homes of known gang bosses.
Gang warfare is just one factor in the horrific statistics for violence and abuse of children – add the harrowing domestic violence, rape, physical and emotional abuse our children suffer.
We want to respond to a mother in Hanover Park who called on mothers of the victims of gang violence and other forms of abuse to stand together. Her voice echoes the aching hearts and desperate pleas across the Cape Flats from mothers who feel that for the past 10 years the provincial government has failed them. They also express frustration that the South African Police Service is not doing enough.
Attempts to stimulate debate on and awareness of children’s rights invariably resort to a lament about inadequate resources, as cited in the Save the Children South Africa Annual Report 2015, which says “one of the reasons for not achieving these rights is inadequate resources to fully implement laws such as the Children’s Act, Child Justice Act and Sexual Offences Act”.
This, however, does not exonerate us from doing more. This must include a multisectoral approach to create greater awareness and champion children’s rights, especially in vulnerable communities; a compact between state, private sector and community structures; and a collective effort to address the ultimate root causes of poverty, inequality and unemployment that feed the crime psychosis.
Oliver Tambo said: “The children of any nation are its future. A country, a movement, a person that does not value its youth and children does not deserve its future. Join me as an adult to protect and care for all our children.”
We cannot afford to fail them nor can we surrender in the struggle for children’s rights. To surrender would add a bizarre twist to the words of Khalil Gibran, and render his sage writings along the lines of: “Your children are not your children. They are the statistics you surrender to violence, abuse and gangsterism. You may give birth to them but crime will take them from you. You may have dreams for them of a world you thought you would never see, but it is they who are snatched from your world of dreams and laid to rest in shallow graves. It is true that they come through you but not from you, but unless you act now you will never again know the unbridled joy a child can bring or the profound sense of loss of a child’s untimely departure.” DM
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