Saturday, November 17, 2007

A toxic cocktail underpins abuse

from Pretoria News

In South Africa, children under the age of five face a homicide rate more than double the global average.

Among children over the age of five, firearms are the leading cause of fatal violence, and among children under 10, violent death by a blunt object ranks second.

Another recent report revealed that of all rapes reported in South Africa in a set period, a staggering 40.8 percent of victims were children. This is a conservative figure as child rapes are even more under-reported to the authorities than adult rapes.

These shocking statistics, provided by researcher Richard Matzopoulos of the Medical Research Council, are indicative of what Matzopoulos calls the "epidemic proportions" of violence committed against children in this country.

The murder statistics - more than 1 000 child victims a year over the past few years - are cut and dried. In the case of rape and sexual assault, however, the statistics are very probably the tip of the iceberg.

Much media coverage of this epidemic focuses on the sensationalism of the courtroom. Little attention is given to the deep-rooted causes of the problem and public opinion leans heavily towards how perpetrators should be punished.

Media expert Professor Tawana Kupe, from Wits University, Johannesburg, says: "Violence against children is endemic but the sensationalist angle dominates in the media."

A host of interlinked factors make South African children vulnerable. These include poverty, unemployment, an ongoing culture of violence created by apartheid, disintegration of family structures, the HIV/Aids pandemic, migration patterns, gender stereotyping and attitudes towards children.

Linked to these risk factors is another major factor that needs far more attention in the public realm than it currently receives - substance abuse.

"Most South Africans say crime is the biggest problem in our country," says Professor Sebastian van As, head of trauma at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town, "but the biggest problem is actually alcohol and substance abuse. It is regarded as a joke in this country".

He says violence against children wouldn't disappear if substance abuse was eliminated, but it would decrease dramatically.

Malose Langa is a psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation trauma clinic and a PhD candidate at Wits University. He carried out research on a group of young offenders in Johannesburg Prison.

Langa says one in five South African youths know people in their communities who buy and sell drugs, and studies have found 58 percent of young offenders reported being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their crimes. According to a National Injury Mortality Surveillance System, Langa says, 56 percent of arrested suspects tested positive for drugs in blood alcohol tests.

Illicit drugs

Matzopoulos says illicit drugs such as tik have fallen under the spotlight, but this shouldn't take the heat off alcohol.

"The latter is legitimised and is a major source of tax revenue, but it is a big factor in all forms of violence against children," he says.

Sarina Brown, mother of murdered two-year-old Sonja Brown from the De Nova informal settlement in the Western Cape, says she believes her child would still be alive if alcohol and tik abuse were under control in South Africa.

But, cautions Joan van Niekerk, national co-ordinator of Childline South Africa, "while substance abuse is understated, it should not be seen as a stand-alone factor".

She says, "Many South African children are growing up in families and communities that are still recovering from the legacy of apartheid. Poverty makes children more vulnerable, it makes abusers more vulnerable to acting out their issues and it also compromises children once abuse has occurred."

This plays a big role in the pall of silence that lies over this crisis. Says Van Niekerk, "According to Childline and other role-players' experiences, children are exposed to every type of sexual abuse imaginable."

Her list includes rape; attempted rape; indecent assaults, such as oral rape, anal rape, finger penetration, penetration with objects, fondling of the genitals or breasts, forcing or manipulating the child into fondling the genitals of the assailant; exposure to adult and child pornography; sexually suggestive remarks or language to a child; and indecent exposure.

"Sometimes," Van Niekerk says, "children are severely beaten or physically assaulted in the context of these assaults or are even killed so that silence is maintained".

Langa says, "Stigma and shame attached to sexual abuse prevent many children from reporting it. Fear of upsetting parents or causing disharmony in the family or community are also major factors."

Many survivors also are aware revealing their attack could put the family breadwinner in jeopardy.

Wilma Jantjies-Mitchell, a fieldworker at Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (Rapcan) who works on the Cape Flats, says she has encountered many cases where children are reluctant to speak up for fear of the consequences.


One small boy, whose mother had hurt his head by throwing a blunt object at him, said he didn't want to tell anyone because his mother would go to jail and he'd be all alone.

A five-year-old girl, who had been raped over a two-year period by her mother's boyfriend, had also kept silent as her mom had explained there'd be no money for food if he was taken away by the authorities.

In both cases, the fear of further impoverishment played a role in the child's silence.

Murder, rape and assault of children are not limited to impoverished communities, but poverty increases the risk factors so much that this is where the crisis has reached epidemic proportions.

Dr Catherine Ward, a senior research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council, highlights factors leading to violence against children.

"Poverty is directly linked to larger families," she says, "and younger children (babies and toddlers), who are naturally more demanding, become more vulnerable in a context where resources are thin."

Then, Ward says, "there is the housing policy issue. With overcrowding and a high presence of unemployed men, with time on their hands and access to alcohol and drugs, it is a breeding ground for sexual abuse."

She says schools may also be fertile breeding grounds for a culture of violence. Corporal punishment has been outlawed, but studies show that 50% of learners say they are beaten at school.

Peer groups and neighbours also play a role. Ward says, "In poor gang-ridden neighbourhoods, parents often resort to harsh forms of punishment for the children and this increases the likelihood of the cycle of violence.

"Despite this unbearable barrage of risk factors, there are still choices to be made. As risk outweighs protection, many individuals still make the right choices. Many struggle to do the best for their children in spite of overwhelming odds."

Matzopoulos says it's not just poverty that increases abuse risk. It is poverty within a society where others are very privileged.

"The enormous poverty-wealth gap in South Africa plays a role," he says.

"People feel worthless, without prospects and with low self-esteem. Apartheid has left a huge number of hopeless people in its wake - people who have had their human rights and dignity eroded to such an extent that they take it out on the most helpless members of the society."

The rights and protection of children are an important part of South Africa's Constitution.

Many lobby groups also work tirelessly towards a judicial system that will punish perpetrators.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Recent report revealed that of all rapes reported in South Africa in a set period, a staggering 40.8 percent of victims were children. This is a conservative figure as child rapes are even more under-reported to the authorities than adult rapes.

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