1 June is commemorated annually as the International Day for Protection of Children. It was established in June 1950, following the 1949 Women’s International Democratic Federation’s congress in Moscow, Russia. In South Africa, this year, 1 June also ushers in National Child Protection Week, which serves as a vehicle through which advocacy for children’s rights and other matters affecting their welfare across the nation can be addressed.
The rights of children are entrenched in the country’s Constitution, which acknowledges the vulnerability of children and, as a result, extends extra protections to them. The equality clause obliges the State, and our society at large, not to unfairly discriminate against children because of their age. This reinforces the fact that children are rights-bearers on their own and not through their parents or guardians. They deserve to be treated with dignity and equality and, as section 28 says, all while ensuring that the child’s best interests are considered as of paramount importance. Section 28 protects, among others, the rights to family care, nutrition, shelter, and healthcare, for children specifically. The Constitution also recognises the history of abuse of children and prohibits exploitative labour practices. It further demands that if extreme circumstances exist that require the detention of children, that those environments are conducive for the holding of children.
At this point in time, the most reported matter affecting children in South Africa is access to education. Section 29 protects the right to unrestricted access to basic education for all children in the country. Pandemics have the effect of amplifying inequality in society. COVID-19 has been no different. In terms of access to education, the disparities in South Africa have resulted in some children being more adversely affected by the unavoidable closure of schools.
While all children have been unable to attend school physically, access to education has been easier for those from more affluent backgrounds than their less privileged counterparts. Children with access to the internet, in environments that allow for e-learning and other educational activities to be executed with few obstacles, are faring much better. Compare them with children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, where the internet is a luxury, textbooks are shared among groups and parents/guardians are unable to dedicate uninterrupted hours to guiding them through the syllabuses.
The announcement yesterday by Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, that schools would not be reopening today as planned, due to the unpreparedness of a large number of schools, is testament to the impact of the pandemic.
As was seen in this morning’s briefing, the schools which are unprepared are invariably those from poorer, less resourced communities, as has always been the case. Schools in the poorest provinces – KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo, for example – have yet to receive enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to cater to their overcrowded classrooms. These schools have not received enough water to allow for the maintenance of adequate hygiene or have been vandalised and are literally unable to safely accommodate learners. Further, a large contingent of children are not receiving the nutrition they require due to lack of access to school feeding schemes.
The delay in reopening schools also continues the violence that too many children have been exposed to since the beginning of lockdown. In reports of domestic violence, children are often victims alongside women, and have been forced to spend extended periods in enclosed spaces with their abusers.
For decades, public schools have endured poor support from government in the maintenance of infrastructure. Children have walked (and will continue to walk) unacceptably long distances to and from schools in the harshest of conditions, exposing them to unspeakable harm. Children have lost their lives on school grounds due to poor hygiene and the Department of Basic Education has gone so far as to oppose legal challenges where such devastating loss has taken place, albeit due to its own failures.
Now, after years of visible neglect and continued exposure to unsafe schools, the State is rallying in the wake of the pandemic, prioritising the need to create safe and clean learning environments. The DBE is redirecting funds and attempting to perform enormous feats to allow for these critical issues to be addressed in mere weeks.
This clearly speaks to the fact that our children have been passed over, not because of capacity, but due to the absence of political will in government.
This Child Protection Week, the IFP calls upon government to exercise the political will it so obviously possesses to actively address the gaps in the access to safe and adequate education for all children, even after we have overcome this pandemic. The IFP calls upon government to recognise that the protection of all children matters, and that their safety should be of paramount importance, especially when they are attending school.
Hon. M.D. Hlengwa, MP
Committee Member – Presidency: Women, Children and People with Disabilities
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