Earlier this year, the first-ever nationally representative study of child maltreatment in South Africa revealed that over 40% of young people interviewed reported having experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. This figure is high, but it is not unusual: similar studies on violence against children have been conducted across 12 other countries, with many revealing equally high rates.
Last year the UN General Assembly committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, which include ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against children, and setting a number of goals targeting the risk factors for maltreatment (for example, goals for good health, quality education, and gender equality). Just over one year after the adoption of these Sustainable Development Goals, it is imperative that global leaders consider these figures and understand the urgent need to take decisive action to keep children safe.
However, while the current statistics are bleak, there is hope that with reliable data, national leaders have the opportunity to make real progress in improving the well-being of children. Provided with better data on the problems, countries may now draw on the growing body of evidence that has deepened our understanding of violence and how to prevent it, learning lessons about how to turn scientific evidence into effective policy. With the right support and investment, middle-income countries are well-positioned to lead the way.
Take the case of South Africa. Like many countries, it has excellent laws and a national action plan to prevent, and respond to, violence against children; it has a clear indication of political will. However, laws and policies on their own are not enough: without enforcement, they are meaningless. This child maltreatment is where South Africa, like many others, falls down. For instance, corporal punishment is banned in South African schools – yet half of its students report having experienced corporal punishment at the hands of an educator. The study also found that young people tend not to report instances of maltreatment, and that when they do, the services – social, police, criminal justice, and health services – are not as efficient or effective as the policies clearly intend them to be.
While these facts are troubling, they also build a case for the path forward. What is needed is a clear protocol across the myriad agencies involved for the treatment, referral, and management of cases of child abuse, as well as support for the victims as they make reports. Such a protocol would improve service delivery; making it easier and more likely that young people would report maltreatment, and go a long way to preventing recurrences.
The study also provides a roadmap for how South Africa can ensure that young people who have been victimised will not go on to experience disabling consequences. It reveals that young victims of maltreatment are twice as likely as other young people to suffer anxiety or depression; three times as likely to report post-traumatic stress disorder; and more likely to report problems in schoolwork, high-risk sexual behaviour, and substance misuse. All of these can have serious long-term impacts on young lives. However, appropriate treatment through health and mental health services can make all the difference, either by preventing the consequences of violence, or providing early treatment before they develop into serious, intractable problems. Schools can be a key referral pathway here, by attending to young people who have sudden changes in their schoolwork and referring them on to professionals.
Finally, the study identified how strong action could prevent the maltreatment of children from happening in the first place. Parents are a key focus for prevention efforts as children who reported victimisation were far more likely to have parents who misused drugs and alcohol than children who did not; and children whose parents had warm relationships with them, and who knew where they were and who they were with, were far less likely to report maltreatment. This suggests that scaling up substance abuse prevention, treatment efforts, and effective, evidence-based parent skills training programmes would go a long way in preventing violence against children.
…scaling up substance abuse prevention, treatment efforts, and parent skills training programmes would go a long way in preventing violence against children.
Now that it has a better understanding of the problem, South Africa and the other countries with nationally representative studies have the opportunity to take a range of concrete actions to prevent violence against children and demonstrate how progress may be made. In doing so, these countries may be inspired by a growing community of international and national leaders who recognise and embrace the critical challenge of preventing violence against children and the necessity of investing political capital to make that happen. In July, a new global partnership to End Violence Against Children was developed by the World Health Organization and other partners; launched to catalyse action, it calls for pathfinder countries to demonstrate the way forward by implementing a set of strategies proven to reduce violence and its impact on the lives of children. These strategies (known collectively as INSPIRE) include promoting parenting skills and empowering families economically, as well as improving the emotional development of children and their access to health care. It also includes recommendations for laws and social norms that protect children, as well as challenging the gender stereotypes that can normalize violence.
Preventing violence against children has been a neglected issue, but today we have reached an unprecedented point of opportunity. We now have better data than ever before on the full extent of the problem, and a growing base of evidence on what needs to be done to prevent it. It is time for action.
Featured image credit: School chairs by Alex Serafini for Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention. Used with permission.