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South Africa’s childism is the biggest blight on our children’s futures

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

What kind of future awaits young girls when their childhood is being stolen?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Mark Tomlinson wrote an op-ed in which he referred to South Africa as having something called “childism”, which is explained as “a deep prejudice and negative attitudes towards children”.

He referred specifically to the story of five-year-old Michael Komape who died in a dilapidated pit toilet at school. The Limpopo MEC of basic education at the time was Dikeledi Magadzi who when asked about the horrific incident tersely replied that she was not the “MEC of toilets”.

Fast forward to August 2021 and our president in his wisdom has appointed her deputy minister of water and sanitation, effectively a promotion with no accountability for what happened under her watch. Could it get more macabre?

In 2001, when I was a 19-year-old intern, I remember a news story of a nine-month-old baby girl who was raped so badly that she had to get reconstructive surgery. Our then police commissioner responded dismissively to the tune of “So? It’s not the first time that we are hearing of such things.” Having read that, I rushed out of the office to go and sob uncontrollably in the bathroom at the sheer force of the callousness he displayed and the unbelievable pain and trauma that baby had had to endure. In that year, 11 babies under the age of a year were reported to have been raped and 25,000 children reported to have been sexually assaulted.

A recent report by the Gauteng Department of Health revealed that there were 23,226 teenage pregnancies between April 2020 and March 2021, with 934 of the girls aged between 10 and 14.

The Children’s Institute says that one in three children is the victim of sexual violence and physical abuse before they reach the age of 18 and the shocking numbers from the health department are further evidence of this.

What we need to remember is that the age of consent for sex in SA is 16, which means all the children who are below that age have had statutory rape committed against them. This means giving the issue not just a cursory assessment but looking into the circumstances under which a child below the age of consent is involved in sexual acts and what this reveals about our society.

Most 10-year-olds are in Grade 5 and are concerned with whether they’ll be able to figure out the difference between fractions and improper fractions. The most exciting thing that could happen to them is to be taken to the park to play with their friends and then go for ice cream afterwards. So how then does a 10-year-old child parent a child?

We also have to ask where the parents are in these situations, to what extent they may be complicit in this abuse and how they are holding the people impregnating their children accountable. I attended a conference this week on customary law and social justice, and one of the topics of discussion was the issue of young girls being used as a means to ensure their family’s economic survival by being sold to men who would then provide for their families.

This phenomenon is an open secret in our society and plays out not only in remote rural areas under the guise of custom and tradition but also in urban areas. Poor families allow their children to get into sexual relationships with older men for financial gain, a further indictment of the desperation that is bred by a dysfunctional society built on socioeconomic inequality.

These girls will eventually become young women who have to be productive and well-adjusted people. What kind of future awaits them when their childhood is being stolen? How many more times do we need to have young woman after young woman come forward talking of their sexual abuse and rape at a young age and how that made them angry people who feel scared of men and alienated from society because nobody did anything to help them or stem the tide of the violence against their bodies and the psychological warfare of being made to feel it was their fault?

Our society’s childism, particularly against girls, has to be our biggest blight. These things do not exist in a vacuum and should not be treated as such. The Department of Social Development is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety and protection of children, but we have yet to hear a comprehensive response from it about how it is dealing with such high numbers of children being violated.

In a country with so many strong institutions and legal mechanisms such as the Children’s Act, how are we not able to implement effective child protection measures that will guard against our children’s futures being corrupted and stolen? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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