Abused in the name of discipline

But when children become silent victims in the cases of extreme cruelty meted out in the name of punishment, or victims of crimes committed against them by trusted family members or friends, there is usually no one to speak up for the child. And so those children with a measure of opportunity will turn to the streets in search of the ever elusive “freedom” from the pain suffered, only to find themselves in a worse situation. Just like sex, drugs, and alcohol, sadism can also manifest itself as an addictive habit involving a powerful figure and a vulnerable one. In many cases, most of the vulnerable figures are women and children.

A 2005 United Nations Study on Violence Against Children around the world reviewed the situation in 22 African countries, including Angola, Comoros, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Before the regional meeting on the study held in July 2005 in Johannesburg, 56 children also met in Johannesburg. Led by youth facilitators, they identified and defined the types of violence children face, and strategies they use to address it and ideas for what might be done in the future. The children and young people from 18 countries gave disheartening accounts of the violence children faced and it is sad to realise that in the 21st century, children are no longer children neither are they allowed to be.

According to the study, “children in Eastern and Southern Africa face a number of different forms of violence in their daily lives. Sadly, they too often experience violence in their own homes, not only when parents or others in the family are violent towards each other, but also as victims of violence themselves”.

“All forms of violence that happen in the home environment are under-reported. This is not only because they happen in the privacy of the home and so ‘invisibly’. It is also because, even when they know that children are on the receiving end of violent acts, people are reluctant to do anything about it or report it to anyone else.

“The ‘sanctity of the home’ and the ‘privacy of the family’ are poor excuses for allowing a child to suffer,” says the report, noting also that: “Using violence as a way of ‘teaching’ the child does not only happen in the home. It is common in schools throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, as in other parts of the world, even where it is banned in law. The truth is that people who have a position of responsibility over the child ‘ whether as a parent, a teacher or some other carer ‘ too often abuse that position and assert their ‘superiority’ by using violence against the child. Far from being ‘educational’ in the sense that parents and teachers claim it to be, violence in the guise of ‘education’ only teaches the child that it is legitimate to inflict violence on a weaker person. And the cycle of violence continues.”

The mother who burns her son’s hands because she caught him with his hand in the cooking pot after a hungry day at school, the father who whips a daughter to unconsciousness because she was not at home at a particular time, the 17-year-old stepbrother who habitually rapes the 12-year-old stepsister and the suspecting mother fails to act for fear of ‘disturbing’ her home, the father who strikes his wife in front of his children six out of seven days in a week, the ugly list goes on . . . and this is only in the ‘safe environment’ called home, what about the children on the streets?

Save the Children Sweden, an international non-governmental organisation dealing with children and based in South Africa, reports that most countries in Southern Africa are faced with “poverty, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, political oppression, human rights violations, food insecurity, as well as poor performance of governments when it comes to budgeting and poverty reduction strategies and unemployment. Violence and abuse, especially against children, are also widespread”.

Given these factors, the weakest members of society, inevitably the children, are the first to bear the brunt of these situations. However, ultimately, society as a whole suffers when the children who result from these social calamities grow into maladjusted adults ready to tear apart their own countries in a scarcely understood rage by perpetrators or victims. This is why, after years of “civilisation”, our jails are expanding rather than contracting or developing into social welfare centres.

“Large numbers of children in southern Africa experience violence and abuse as part of their daily lives. In many parts of the region, a history of conflict or civil war has left scars on the social fabric. In some households, violence has come to seem like a normal way of dealing with conflict. The abuse of children is underpinned by unequal relations between men and women,” says a Save the Children Report on their website www.rb.se/sv

“The child’s right to be free from violence and abuse is violated in a number of ways. There is an alarmingly high incidence of rape and sexual abuse of children, which also places them at a great risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Particularly vulnerable to abuse, violence and harmful or exploitative labour practices are those children living without parents and/or a home. Corporal punishment is widely practiced and existing laws do not adequately protect children from this form of physical violence, especially in the home. No country in the region has a comprehensive monitoring system that accurately captures and reports on violence and abuse against children, and efforts to improve the situation have often been fragmented and inadequate given the scale and depth of abuse and violence,” said the organisation in a statement on World Aids Day.

What are the tools needed to implement checks and balances in such a situation?

A counsellor at Childline/Lifeline in Namibia believes that there are a few organisations that address the plight of children in southern Africa. It is clear that that among the issues being spoken of in the region, that of children is at the bottom of the agenda, if at all, in many countries except South Africa.

Only about three countries in the region have ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Many other countries have not, preferring to consolidate their image at the United Nations level where almost all African countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This type of “window-dressing” on the situation does little to help in realising the human rights of children. We forget, to our own peril, that the weakest members of our society today will be the unreasonable bullies of tomorrow.

More civil society organisations are needed to highlight the human rights of children and urge the implementation of social welfare schemes that actively enforce these rights. Advocacy without enforcement translates into big zeros as far as child welfare in southern Africa is concerned. We do not need extra qualified researchers to tell us these facts. The evidence is on our streets.

December 2006
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