On 20 November 1989 the UN Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child which affirms children’s rights to life, health, education, play and protection from harm. These rights apply to all children everywhere and the UNCRC is the most ratified treaty in the world, and the first international treaty ratified by SA’s democratic government on June 16 1995.
As such, South Africa has an obligation to put in place laws, policies, programmes and services together with the financial and human resources needed to support the realisation of children’s rights, prioritising those who are most vulnerable, and reporting on progress to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
So it is an opportune time to celebrate these protections and entitlements, and to evaluate progress.
These human rights are universal and apply to all children everywhere – without discrimination – with the right to equality celebrating both our diversity and common humanity.
There is a strong emphasis on protection in recognition of children’s vulnerability and dependence on adults for care. But this is balanced with a recognition of children’s evolving capacities and growing independence, and an appreciation of the need to listen to children, and take what they say seriously. This is needed in order to build a human rights culture in which all children are treated with dignity and respect, and can thrive and reach their full potential as active citizens and valued partners in family and community life.
How is SA doing in achieving this vision for children?
These protections and entitlements are an integral part of the South African Constitution. This includes the right of everyone to a basic education (section 29) and the right of children to a name and nationality, family care, protection from abuse and neglect, and their right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social services, with the best interests of the child of paramount importance in any matter affecting the child. (section 28).
These rights are not empty promises. They are powerful and justiciable, and it is on the basis of the interdependence of these rights that Section27, Equal Education & others successfully challenged the suspension of the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) and enabled 9.5 million children to regain access to this essential lifeline. As noted by Judge Potterill in her judgement:
“A more undignified scenario than starvation of a child is unimaginable. The morality of a society is gauged by how it treats its children. Interpreting the Bill of Rights promoting human dignity, equality and freedom can never allow for the hunger of a child…”
This case speaks to the strengths of an independent judiciary and a strong civil society as active defenders of children’s rights. But it also raises concerns around how children were not the primary nor paramount consideration in the government’s responses to the Covid-19 pandemic – and how children have suffered significant collateral damage as the state concentrated efforts on adult-centred care.
Measures introduced to stop the spread of Covid-19 have exposed the faultlines of our society, deepening inequalities and thrusting many households even deeper into poverty. Rising unemployment and hunger have fuelled tensions, conflict and violence within the home, and a rise of common mental health disorders have impacted on the care and protection of children, with women bearing the brunt of unemployment and carrying the burden of care for children.
At the same time children were cut off from essential services and support such as birth registration, education, health and social services – in ways that have caused both immediate and long-term harm.
For example, immunisation coverage in South Africa dropped to 61% in April 2020 (down from 82% the previous year), and 23% of respondents in a national survey were unable to access chronic medication or contraception in May/June, with 11% of new and HIV+ mothers running out of ARVs.
Given these multiple threats to children’s health and development, it is vital that children are prioritised in government’s relief and recovery plans.
Positive recent developments
The new National Plan of Action for Children (2019-2024) aims to strengthen the ‘child rights machinery’ by establishing an Office of the Rights in the Child in the Presidency with the authority to hold other government departments accountable and drive collaboration across sectors and departments.
The new South African National Child Rights Coalition aims to mobilise and coordinate civil society organisations working in the children’s sector, and the newly appointed Children’s Commissioner in the Western Cape is working with children to ensure children have a voice in the planning and monitoring of government services.
South Africa is also at the start of a new reporting cycle to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, with civil society currently drafting a list of issues and critical questions that will inform South African’s country report. These commitments to upholding children’s rights are welcome and offer a measure of hope and cautious optimism in difficult times.
Yet when government was considering how to alleviate the economic impact of Covid-19, it chose to increase the Old Age Pension and Disability Grants by R250, yet it chose not to increase grants for children – despite the Child Support Grant (CSG) of R450 falling well below the food poverty line of R585. Instead it opted to introduce a Caregivers Grant of R500 and a Covid-19 relief grant of R350.
Now as we countdown to Christmas, the Caregiver Grant has come to an end leaving households of women and children particularly exposed. This seems a particularly callous choice given that 60% of children already lived below the upper poverty line before lockdown (with just enough money to meet a child’s basic needs for food, clothing and shelter) and 30% lived below the food poverty line without sufficient resources to meet the nutritional needs of the child.
It is therefore not surprising that stunting – a sign of chronic malnutrition – has remained stubbornly unchanged for 25 years since the advent of democracy and our ratification of the UNCRC.
Political freedom without economic equality is an empty promise, and this failure to invest in children comes as a huge cost – for children today and for us as a society – as stunting not only undermines children’s health, education and economic prospects, it also limits the life chances of the next generation of children.
So, if we are indeed committed to the promise made in the Preamble of our Constitution to: “heal the divisions of the past; establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; and improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person,” then it is vital that government heeds the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call on leaders to “do everything in their power” to cushion children from the impact of the pandemic, and to put children at the heart of their relief and recovery efforts. DM/MC
Lori Lake is a child rights advocate, and communication and education specialist based at the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.