Violence against children is an international crisis. A recent report by Know Violence in Childhood says that 1.7 billion children around the world experienced some form of violence, abuse or cruelty in the last year. That is three out of every four children.
And in South Africa, one in every three young people experiences sexual abuse during their lives, according to the Optimus Study. Violence experienced by children costs the country R238 billion in direct costs and lost opportunities, according to Save the Children SA. We cannot delay acting to make children safer.
There are still many questions about how best to do this. In South Africa and globally the challenge is to make good on our investment in understanding the problem, and testing interventions to reduce the risk factors.
In New York this week, a high-level meeting was held at the United Nations (UN), hosted by Queen Sylvia of Sweden, the Swedish Mission to the UN, the World Childhood Foundation and Know Violence in Childhood. It demonstrated what governments, civil society organisations, academics and business are doing to address violence, and offered innovative solutions and opportunities for partnerships with the private sector.
A Brazilian cement company, for example, educates its truck drivers about children’s rights, child sexual abuse and child trafficking. Now the drivers can identify children who are abused on their routes, and act to prevent it.
There is reason for cautious hope. International researchers, diplomats, non-governmental organisations and senior child safety officials are seeking collective action and new solutions to help meet the UN-driven Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This offers international solidarity for the work that’s being done in South Africa. Adopted in 2015, the SDGs commit world leaders to giving children access to health and education, and freedom from violence, abuse and exploitation.
South Africa’s violent past continues to reverberate across its society – one of the most violent in the world.
In 2010 the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) interviewed men who were jailed for serious violent crimes including rape, murder and armed robbery. The aim was to understand their life stories and detect the roots of their behaviour. The men came from various backgrounds and had unique life stories, with one thing in common – all had endured an absence of warm, supportive and loving relationships in childhood.
The findings, published in the ISS monograph Beaten Bad, revealed that the men had experienced repeated trauma that was never resolved. Many believed what their caregivers had told them – that they were no good and would never amount to anything. They internalised these feelings of inferiority, and justified their actions through the injustice of their circumstances.
Opportunities to intervene positively in the lives of these men had been missed. They shared an early and overwhelming, but often unconscious, sense of loss or betrayal because of physical or emotional separation from parents, carers, professionals and responsible adults. Most left school early. Many were bullied at school and beaten by their teachers, and they experienced more violence at home.
They went on to find security and respect in their associations with other young men in the same situation. Their stories illustrate how violence perpetuates itself in society.
It is critical that we break these cycles of intergenerational violence. There are many initiatives under way to attempt this in South Africa. One of them is the Seven Passes Initiative, which in collaboration with the University of Cape Town and the ISS is trying to change a whole community’s approach to parenting. We want to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to have warm relationships with their children, to set boundaries and provide non-violent discipline. These programmes are for all caregivers including pregnant mothers, parents of teenagers, fathers, foster parents and grandparents.
Parenting programmes have shown to reduce the stress of parenting and improve relationships between parents and their children. Warm and consistent parenting gives children the best chance to realise their full potential as adults with better educational, economic and social life chances.
But even the best programmes in only a few communities won’t on their own address the extremely high levels of violence in South Africa. Policymakers, researchers, academics and NGOs need to work together to figure out how to expand programmes that prevent domestic violence, treat trauma, support parents and give children safe places when their parents are not around.
Next week, the National Dialogue Forum for evidence-based programmes to prevent violence against women and children meets in South Africa. This is one of the places where the government, NGOs and academics come together to figure out how collectively they can ensure a better future for children.
Slowly and organically South Africa is growing a community of policymakers and practitioners who are passionate about and committed to preventing violence against children. There are signs that different sectors are beginning to understand each other and are starting to work together to make a major difference in the lives of the children of today and the adults of tomorrow.
But for this to succeed, politicians from all parties must join the call to action – and we must all agree that we cannot stop violence and crime with more violence.
Chandré Gould, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria
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