The 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children kick off on Monday (November 25). In an opinion article for Die Burger, Dr Marianne Strydom of the Department of Social Work writes about how children's rights are still being undermined. The article was originally written in celebration of International Children's Day (20 November).
Children's rights being ignored
International Children's Day has been celebrated annually on November 20 since 1954. Given that this day is primarily aimed at promoting the well-being of children, a strong emphasis is placed on advancing and raising awareness about children's rights. However, the fact that children have rights and are aware of them does not mean that those rights are realised on their behalf. In South Africa, many children may be aware of their rights because they are part of the school curriculum. But in their daily lives, the fact that they are aware of their rights often does not make much difference to their reality.
One of these realities is poverty. Approximately 14 million children in South Africa live in poverty. Although a large number of these children receive a Child Support Grant, it is important to remember that this grant is only R430 per month and is only paid out to households where the income is less than R4000 per month for single parents, and R8000 if both parents are in the household.
Poverty is particularly linked to unemployment, which is another reality for South Africa's children. About a third of the slightly over 19 million children in the country live in households where no adult has a permanent job. Thus in a household where there is no income or where the only income is the child grant. Under these circumstances, children have little control, and more than five million children suffer from hunger-related illnesses. This despite their constitutional right to basic nutrition.
An important argument for children's rights is that children need special protection because they are some of the most vulnerable members of society because of their dependence on care and protection of parents or family. If family care fails, the state must take responsibility. Children not only have a constitutional right to be cared for by their families, but also to appropriate alternative care when family care fails. Furthermore, the child has the right to social services.
Poverty and unemployment are strongly linked to the neglect of children. Children also have the right to be protected from any form of neglect, abuse and humiliation. Statistics on child neglect in South Africa are high, indicating a need as well as the right to social services. However, the child's right to social services is influenced by structural challenges in the welfare sector. Charities, in particular, experience challenges such as the lack of vehicles to assess the circumstances of children and families, insufficient staff, and a lack of resources in communities. These challenges result in few preventative services being provided, which means that children must be removed from their families and placed in alternative care, such as foster care.
Thus, children's constitutional right to social services and the right to parental care are not always feasible. In practice, the child's right to care in the family and the provision of services to promote family maintenance means that the child's right to social services is realised in the right to alternative care. The child can therefore be removed because of the structural challenges that exist in welfare organisations and communities. A step that causes tremendous trauma for the child.
The date of November 20 is important because it is the day on which the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child in 1959, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. It is important that we celebrate International Children's Day because children, especially those under the age of six, have very little power to realise their rights themselves (such as not being hungry, for example), without the full support of the State.
South Africa is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means that the State has an obligation to protect the basic rights of all children in South Africa. However, we still have a long way to go before this becomes a reality.
*Dr Marianne Strydom is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Stellenbosch University.