Social Development Month is observed annually in October to mark our nation’s commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in society, including children.
While the Department of Social Development (DSD) is committed to promoting and protecting children’s rights, violence against children is increasing at an alarming rate.
“This is despite all efforts in advancing the care and protection of children,” says the department’s spokesperson Lumka Oliphant.
Nearly 130 000 babies were delivered by girls aged 10 to 19 in South African public health facilities in 2019. This figure increased to 136 386 deliveries for girls in the same age cohort in 2020, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) told Parliament in September.
The sharp increase in teenage pregnancies coincided with a surge in reported gender-based violence (GBV) cases during the 2020 hard lockdown, when learners were not physically at school, said the DBE’s Director-General Granville Whittle.
“There was a significant increase in reported cases of violence, rape, child abuse, neglect and exploitation during the COVID-19 hard lockdown restrictions, as per statistics provided by Childline South Africa and the 24/7 crisis line,” says Oliphant.
Oliphant stresses that everyone has a responsibility to report all suspected cases of child abuse. “Community members need to be educated about the laws that protect children and their responsibility to report child abuse to the police and social workers.”
One of these laws refers to statutory rape. While rape is when sexual intercourse occurs without consent, statutory rape occurs when a person engages in sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16, even if the child gave consent.
While a person under the age of 18 is still considered a child in South Africa, the age of consent is 16.
Children’s safety compromised
Oliphant says the lockdowns disrupted children’s routines and social support systems, thus heightening multiple risk factors and vulnerabilities. Parents became unemployed, putting more stress on them.
“In some instances, this compromised children’s safety and protection.”
COVID-19 stigma and discrimination also made children more vulnerable and contributed to psychosocial distress. Their risk for sexual abuse and exploitation was also made worse by the use of online platforms.
“As children used more online platforms for education they were exposed to the risk of online perpetrators, who recruit and groom them for online sexual abuse and exploitation,” says Oliphant.
The DSD continues to create awareness and mobilise communities to protect children and has implemented numerous programmes to do so, including the 365 Days Child Protection Programme of Action.
Prior to lockdown, the DSD put prevention programmes in place, targeting children aged 10 to 14 and those aged 15 to 24. “Social behaviour change programmes targeting men and boys, interfaith organisations and traditional leaders were also established,” says Oliphant.
Suspected child abuse can be reported to Childline (dial 116 from your cellphone), SAPS (0800 10111) and the GBV Command Centre (0800 428 428).