Although South Africans all over the country have rallied around the issue of child abuse and condemned the victimisation of children, the levels of abuse, particularly sexual violence against children, are still sky high. The Parliamentary Task Group on the Sexual Abuse of Children hearings held last year showed that, although South Africa has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children's right to protection from exploitation and violence is not being respected. Homes, schools, neighbourhoods, and communities have to a large extent ceased to be protective environments for children.
All children have a right to grow up in an environment that ensures that they are protected. The challenge is to contribute, at different levels, towards creating safe spaces and protective environments for all, places where abuse cannot occur. A protective environment is an environment that enables children to grow safely and to be in good health. The following are some of the characteristics of a protective environment:
Safe home and family environment – with no physical, emotional and psychological harm to children – a positive approach to parenting that is strength-based and that nurtures the growth and development of children; where children are allowed to express themselves and have their opinions taken seriously; safe playing spaces, safe roads, safe recreational centres; attitudes, behaviour of adults, and traditions and customs that facilitate protection, not abuse; where adults, leaders and persons in authority have the interest of children at heart. For instance, in planning for infrastructural development issues such as where to put water taps or to build a community hall, the first question asked is “is this spot safe for children?”
"Non-toxic” social environment
A toxic social environment is an environment where there is among other things, violence in all forms, overcrowding. Non- toxic environments are those that promote caring and support as well as connectedness of children, young people and families. Sensitive and caring service providers “for example, teachers, health professionals, social workers, lay counsellors, police, etc.
Policies and laws, including municipality by-laws, that strengthen the protection of children. There is a political will and commitment to fulfilling the protection rights of children. Political leaders are visibly engaging with protection issues at all levels.
Approaches to creating a protective
The first and most important approach is preventing abuse before it occurs. Many times when the word “prevention” is mentioned, it is associated with long-term efforts; it is often seen as something idealistic and unattainable. Yet this is far from the truth, there are so many opportunities that present themselves daily for prevention to be a reality. Here are some examples that could be integrated in service delivery and programming:
1. Family Support Services. What makes a mother leave her infant or small child with strangers, putting her at risk of abuse? Many people believe that it is an irresponsible mother. However, there is the other side of the coin. Isolation and lack of social connectedness is a phenomenon that is common, with the breakdown of the extended family and other communal supports at community level. Many parents, particularly young single parents, feel this sense of social isolation and alienation, the results of which being loneliness and low selfesteem. Poverty exacerbates the isolation of parents and families and as a result they are not in a position to access services. Meaningful family support reaches out to families in need of support and in times of crisis. Family support services may take the form of helping with childcare in times of crisis, when there is an emergency for instance, and the mother has to go somewhere. Crisis childcare services can be drawn on to take care of the child instead of a child being left with strangers and potential abusers.
Another form of family or parental support could be “respite care” – to give mothers a break because parenting, especially of newborn babies and infants, can be very stressful to young parents. Parents really need a break, even if it is for an hour, just to relax and touch base with who they are. Neighbourhood and friendship groups can be formed to support respite care that can rotate from one parent to another, depending on need.
2. Home visitation programmes. The concept of home visitation is always associated with professionals, such as social workers and health professionals, and therefore conjures up images of authoritarian inspections and check-ups. Yet home visitation services are a common sense approach to supporting families, extending support and friendships. They create opportunities for educating and supporting parents in need of support. The innovative part of home visitation services is that they provide an opportunity of making a wide range of community and professional services available to communities. Experience in South Africa has shown that when a multi-disciplinary team – made up for instance of social workers, child and youth care workers, health workers and lay counsellors – visits a family, they instantly offer a range of services in a short space of time, thus maximising the impact on the family. Home visitation helps break down the isolation experienced by many parents and provides opportunities for early intervention and early detection of problems.
3. Promoting positive parenting messages. There are so many educational and awareness campaigns on the rights of children. If there is so much information, then why is it that the abuse and neglect of children still continues? Perhaps it is time to look at the type of “messaging” that goes out. Parents are struggling with childrearing; every time we add a complicated message, no matter how well-meaning it is, they go into a defensive mode. There is a need for a strategy that promotes “little things” those parents can do to make their homes a protective environment.
It is these little things that have a profound and lasting impact on children. There is a need to educate parents in a simple way, building on what they do, which is not really acknowledged in most messages that are promoted. For instance, little things like giving your child a hug and a smile when he or she comes home from school, spending time listening to your child talking excitedly about what happened at school, sharing moments of laughter, story-telling. Praising your child and acknowledging his or her strengths instead of scolding all the time, is a sure way of building the child's self-esteem and a feeling of being safe and loved. These are things that many parents do but that are rarely emphasised. It is about time that pamphlets and posters of “little things parents can do to create a safe a protective environment” were distributed in different languages throughout the country, with no blaming messages. This would go a long way towards developing positive parenting behaviours.
4. Communities doing it together. The African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”, epitomises the importance of the community, especially at neighbourhood level, in raising children and young people. Families exist in communities and community structures are ideally the first level of support outside the family. The South African model of Family Preservation introduced the concept of “community conferencing”, meaning that every organisation or group, formal and informal, at a neighbourhood level should work together in putting children first. This approach calls for an integrated vision at a local level where groups such as stokvel groups, Mothers' Unions, Traditional Leaders, retired professionals, individual volunteers, youth organisations, political groups, etc. gather together and the subject discussed is “how well are our children doing in this locality?” All these different people create a vision for a safe and protective environment and pull together all the resources they have to take care of all children in that locality. From such a comprehensive model, issues of safety of children are discussed. Responses developed through this approach include:
volunteers who accompany children to school to ensure their safety;
neighbourhood friends visiting families;
family mentoring programmes, with families or individuals adopting and mentoring those families in need of support and skills to access services, or to demonstrate and model positive parenting behaviours;
retired people who offer to spend time with children after school, helping them with homework until their parents come back from work;
"neighbourhood watch" programmes with community groups taking turns to monitor the safety and well-being of children. For instance, when children are playing in the dark, the “neighbourhood watch” group investigates and ensures that parents are informed of the dangers their children are in and takes appropriate action if there is a need to refer families for services;
Assets of the community are mapped, such as people who have particular skills, time and resources that could be used to promote protection and skills for children as well as parents.
The result of this approach is a “basket of protection services” that are mobilised within the community. Government services then add value to existing resources and work together to create a bigger caring village to raise a child. Resources converge at a local level and strong partnerships are created between families, governments, health, education, business, religious organisations, political organisations and others to create a protective, caring and enabling environment for “this child” and “all children”.
To conclude, creating a protective environment for children does not really require the Wisdom of Solomon. It is the little common sense and caring things that are done by ordinary people and professionals that make the big difference in the lives of children. It all starts from the heart.
This feature: Mbambo, B. (2003) Practical steps to protection. ChildrenFIRST, Vol.3 No.3 pp.16–18