Part Two: The challenge of safety and some potential solutions

by | Covid and Children

Globally, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lockdown designed to curb infections, has magnified existing societal problems. For children in South Africa the top three are hunger, education and safety. Add to that the psychological impact of the current crisis, and it’s no wonder that our children aren’t okay.

Listen to this article: BeyondWords

In Part One of this two-part series about how our children are doing during lockdown and beyond, we focused on hunger and education. Part two emphasises child safety, some potential solutions to the challenges children face, and how we can help.

“The third major concern for children in South Africa during lockdown and in the weeks to come is safety. In a country where child abuse and child homicides are rife, a child safety strategy should have been a key part of the country’s lockdown plans. But although government distributed contact numbers in case of abuse, there seems to have been no contingency plans made to assist children who faced the horror of being trapped with their abuser for the five weeks of lockdown (and now potentially much longer), without the benefit of a teacher or extended family member to help. Little thought was given to how those children would alert authorities if they were being abused. This despite global abuse figures soaring in the last few months because of the combined factors of food deprivation, fear, unemployment, financial anxiety, loss of control and, in South Africa, caregivers detoxing from alcohol and cigarettes.”

According to Gareth Newham, the head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the Institute of Security Studies, the SAPS received 2,320 complaints of gender-based violence during the first week of lockdown, 37% higher than the weekly average for the 87,290 gender-based violence cases reported during 2019. Troublingly, Newman also pointed out that almost 45% of child murder victims die as a result of abuse or neglect, often at the hands of their mothers. Many of these children would have had no way of getting help, a problem made even worse by lockdown.

Despite difficulties reporting abuse, figures coming out of clinics caring for abused children are alarming. After three weeks of lockdown, Childline had answered 329 calls related to abuse cases and 99 calls involving child neglect, while the Teddy Bear Clinic had already intervened in 30 cases. They were mostly cases where mothers discovered the abuse, or that resulted from community tip-offs.  Organisations like Women and Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) reported similar numbers in their two community clinics. These stories are heartbreaking, but they fear that they are only the tip of the iceberg, because so few children (especially little children), have been able to report abuse.

And even if children were able to alert someone about their plight, there’s no guarantee that authorities would have acted. For some incomprehensible reason, many Department of Social Development (DSD) and social workers able to perform statutory services weren’t working during lockdown. Without social workers authorised to remove at-risk children, no one was able to take them out of dangerous homes and place them somewhere safe.

In one shocking instance, social workers received a community tip-off prior to lockdown about the possible abuse of a four-year-old girl. They failed to respond at the time, then asserted that their offices were closed during lockdown, so they could not assist. Even now that they are back at work, they have yet to investigate, stating that it is too dangerous to do home visits until the pandemic is over. The referring social worker wonders if the child will survive that long.

Child protection activists have also raised concerns about where children would be placed if they were removed. In Gauteng, only three Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs) were able to provide shelter for abused children during Level 5 lockdown, others were overfull and not able to isolate newcomers. Even those that could clear space in their homes for abused children were fearful of taking them because of the risk of infection to existing children and caregivers. Moreover, lockdown resulted in all reunifications, foster care orders and adoptions being temporarily placed on hold.

The situation may seem desperate, and to some extent it is. But South Africa is a country full of opportunities for hope. Even during this pandemic, academics, activists and advocacy groups across the country are collaborating to try to solve the problems as creatively as possible.

Child and Youth Care Centres, who are already experiencing an upsurge in abandonments and abuse cases resulting from lockdown-related poverty, fear that if children are not placed back into families, they will soon run out of space to care for those in need.

Another worry is the impact of Covid-19 measures on the places of safety and child and youth care centres (CYCCs) who look after the most vulnerable children in SA. Financial stress, a common problem for South Africa’s 250,000 registered Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs), and the informal ones too, is being dramatically worsened by the pandemic. An open letter to the president articulated it poignantly:

“South Africa needs to realise that the vulnerable sectors that all NPOs serve, have not simply disappeared overnight”. If anything, the need is greater than ever. But many of those committed to intervening have been left “on their knees, next to the begging bowl, whilst giving their very last breath to save fellow South Africans”. 

Many NPOs survive through self-funding initiatives like second-hand shops and small home industries, as well as event-based fundraisers like golf days and formal dinners, and most are reliant on volunteers and donor drop-offs. But shops were shut during lockdown, and it may be months before events can be resumed, drop-offs have diminished, and no volunteers are currently allowed. Many have been in self-imposed lockdown since 15 March to protect vulnerable and immuno-compromised children, resulting in staff working 24/7. The increased costs of overtime, larger food and utility bills, and the unbudgeted expense of additional hygiene measures have left many NPOs with huge monthly shortfalls.

Some also went without subsidies because the Department of Social Development closed its offices during lockdown, and others have experienced a loss of funders either because businesses are floundering, or because donors have moved their social contribution into larger funds like the Solidarity Fund where their contribution will be more tax deductible. If the outcome of this lack of funding is forced closures, it would lead to huge numbers of infants and children being left without care and shelter. Equally, if abandonments and abuse cases continue to increase, as is likely given the economic impact of the pandemic, those children will also have nowhere safe to go.

Safety is a key factor in the resumption of government services, especially for newborns. As the Department of Home Affairs resumes issuing birth certificates under level 4, it’s likely to be inundated by families trying to register the approximately 100,000 births that occurred during lockdown. Some parents are already fearful that they’ve missed the 30-day window for registering newborns, and although the DHA has assured the Children’s Institute and Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs that these children will not be penalised and that babies don’t need to come to DHA offices when they register, it hasn’t communicated this publicly. Now that birth registrations have resumed, this may result in masses of families assembling at local Home Affairs offices with their infants for what can be an eight-hour process. Nor is leaving babies at home necessarily safer, or feasible for many breastfeeding mothers.

Alarmingly, the lockdown bought a resurgence of violence from external sources too. After decades of democracy, few South African children have lived through what many of their parents and grandparents experienced growing up, police and military patrolling outside their homes, military convoys, tear gas and rubber bullets. But for some, this has changed during lockdown in a harrowing echo of the 1980s. The safety of children will also be compromised by the probable increase in food riots, and protests from hungry communities against dwindling resources and poor service delivery.

Again, government may have lost an opportunity here. Although under-resourced (a problem which countries like the UK addressed by temporarily re-registering social workers no longer practising), the DSD could have deployed social workers with the military and police to soften the face of lockdown, especially for children. It could also have used visible social services as an opportunity to check that children were not being abused or starving during lockdown.

Safety is equally a critical consideration for children with the resumption of schooling. The Department of Education’s detailed plan for school resumption addresses huge challenges regarding child safety including specifications for cleaning and sanitation and for monitoring children’s health. It has left some lingering concerns, though, including how the department aims to marry social distancing with current class sizes (especially when all grades have returned) and how “no more than two pupils per desk” can possibly constitute effective social distancing. And although the department has planned for water-scarce schools to access water, with one in three people in South Africa (about 20 million people) unable to access safe water, sanitation will be a long-term challenge. Equally, how will teachers handle children’s books and exam papers and items sent home without spreading disease?

The prevention plan may also have some unintended consequences. According to ECD experts, the plan specifies that children will regularly have their temperature taken during the school day and will be sent home or quarantined if their temperature is elevated. But many parents won’t be able to fetch their children during the day. As the flu and coronavirus seasons converge in the winter months, children with a cold may easily end up spending the day in a quarantine tent with children with Covid-19.

Most troubling, though, is how the delayed and staggered restart of school will affect children whose parents return to work before they return to school. In the United Kingdom and Australia, schools stayed open during lockdown exclusively for the children of essential services workers. But in Level 5 lockdown in South Africa there were no contingencies made for the children of essential workers. One paediatrician and single mom has been forced to relocate her children to her parents for the duration of lockdown to ensure that they are safe during the day and that they do not contract the virus.

With the gradual return of businesses, and the Department of Basic Education’s plan to introduce a grade at a time, culminating in the youngest children (Grades 2, 1 and R) returning to school in the third term (and potentially, pre-schoolers even later, although there is currently no plan for them), more and more of our youngest children could be left at home alone during the day.

Key questions we should be asking are, who will take care of them at home as the economy begins to normalise? How will they be schooled? And finally, given the prevalence of child abuse and paedophilia in South Africa, how will we keep them at home but safe from harm until they return to school?

The situation may seem desperate, and to some extent it is. But South Africa is a country full of opportunities for hope. Even during this pandemic, academics, activists and advocacy groups across the country are collaborating to try to solve the problems as creatively as possible. As with most South African challenges, what happens next will determine what the outcome will be.

Already some clever strategies have emerged and been adopted. The most significant is the temporary increase in social grants (especially the child support grant) adopted by government following advice from economists advising the Presidency, an advocacy campaign led by the Children’s Institute, UCT and a coalition representing 245 civil society organisations. The child support grant increase in May will be R300 per child, the following five months will see a R500 increase per caregiver. It was a huge victory for advocacy groups, although the unfortunate and significant “per caregiver” amendment has made it less pro-poor than initially anticipated. Other grants will increase by R250 for six months and the government has also introduced a social relief of distress grant (of R350 per month) for the next six months for South African citizens, refugees or permanent residents, who are unemployed, do not receive any form of social grant or UIF payment. The grant is due to be paid from about 15 May.

As is typical in SA, the greatest adversity can be a precursor to change.

Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said in a press conference in the last week of lockdown that the department was also looking to upscale its efforts to feed the hungry and that it was in talks about setting up a food voucher system.

In addition, along with the Solidarity Fund which is set to distribute 250,000 food parcels, NGOs and community-based initiatives have taken on the burden of feeding those whom government has not reached. Projects range from mass feeding schemes like the Durban Hub that is partnering with the Domino Foundation to feed 100,000 families, to three little girls who donated their savings for food parcels for Johannesburg inner-city families.

Stories abound of incredible projects across the country. From the Western Cape where hot meals are being served daily to 3,000 people in Manenberg, and 1,300 children in Lavender Hill, to Gauteng where community-based organisations in Alexandra township are collecting food to provide monthly food hampers for 5,000 families. Also in Gauteng, a project providing fortified ePap meals (that can sustain recipients for 21 days) for families in Eldorado Park, Soweto South and Katlehong, has now stretched to feeding 19,000 families across the country; and in KwaZulu Natal, farmers from Ixopo, Highflats, Kokstad, Mount Currie and Mooi River donated fresh and dry produce, seedlings and milk to surrounding rural communities and partnered with local organisations, churches and local municipalities to provide essential supplies for more than 4,500 families.

In Cape Town, the innovative Hope Voucher system allows anyone with access to a cellphone to get a voucher, and while vouchers are also being used by major supermarkets, Hope Vouchers allow the user to purchase groceries anywhere (including local spaza shops), to avoid the risk of food queues, and to get products specific to their needs.

In response to the significant concern about the lack of a coordinated plan for ensuring food security across the country (to ensure that people aren’t missed and efforts aren’t duplicated), Community Action Network (CAN) projects have sprung up in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and now, with the launch of Gauteng Together, in Gauteng.

Started in Cape Town, the CAN model (and the aligned LEAN model which forms local churches and faith-based organisations into Local Ecumenical Action Networks), uses community-based groups to identify and meet needs at local level (from streets, to neighbourhoods and wider suburbs), map needs across cities and through pairing to assist and resource CANs in poorer communities to meet their own needs. These action networks which span some of the wealthiest and most vulnerable communities are not only helping with provision of food, water, sanitation equipment and masks, but also with education for those children without access to learning material during the pandemic, care for those self-isolating, and with tackling violence against women and children.

Several initiatives have also emerged to support NPOs in crisis including the CAF Southern Africa (CAFSA) emergency fund to help NGOs that provide essential services to the most marginalised communities in the country, and the Mergon Group’s emergency Gap Fund to assist NGOs that have lost significant funding in recent weeks, or that are experiencing an increase in demand for their services. In addition, the National Lotteries Commission (NLC) has released R150-million as a relief measure to NGOs struggling to stay afloat. Key NPOs have also launched a petition asking government to set aside dedicated funding to save SA’s NPOs.

Other than community initiatives, safety solutions are less promising at present. But the Minister of Social Development has undertaken to look at “returning all social workers to local offices to resume duties if that office can provide adequate personal protective equipment in line with health protocols”. In addition, the president announced on 30 April that NGOs working with abused women and children will be essential workers in Level 4 lockdown.

On 6 April the Western Cape Government announced the reopening of its school feeding scheme (including to all subsidised ECD centres) in an attempt to feed 483,000 of the province’s poorest learners. In a separate initiative, Equal Education in conjunction with the Children’s Institute, Centre for Child Law and Section 27 made a call for the minister of education to reopen feeding schemes in other provinces too. She has yet to respond, but if she does, it may help to mitigate child hunger. It’s an area where societal pressure may help.

In the Free State, the education department has been using online programmes to teach its Grade 12s and MTN and Vodacom have zero-rated many learning sites, including Vodacom’s e-school portal for Grades R to 7. Community-based projects have also sprung up to try to keep children learning during lockdown. They range from the innovative Thought Africa that is planning to distribute 100,000 Educare backpacks to children without access to technology, to a mass community-based campaign, Read for Hope, where ordinary South Africans read and WhatsApp message audio books to impoverished primary school children.

One of the most important initiatives relates to the provision of learning resources to the poorest children. Fifty public benefit organisations (PBOs) whose life’s work is to reach the poorest children with learning resources, books, stories, language and maths have worked closely with the Department of Basic Education to design digital content to reach children and young people living in the poorest communities, and the DG Murray Trust has set up a single portal (freely.org.za), through which these PBOs can be zero-rated.  All that network operators have to do is register that one IP domain and agree on the data cap they are willing to commit to. To date, of the four major network operators, only Telkom has expressed a willingness to help – Cell C has declined and Vodacom and MTN have failed to engage, despite zero-rating and setting up a similar portal for schools. This is another area where societal pressure may work.

If you want to help make a difference during the lockdown and thereafter, consider the following:

  • If you are in Gauteng, Cape Town or the Eastern Cape, start or join a local Community Action Network (CAN) or LEAN in your area to help meet your own community’s needs and assist a paired community. Start similar initiatives in other provinces.
  • Join the campaigns initiated by child protection experts, including the demand that the Minister of Basic Education restarts the school feeding programmethe petition to cellphone companies about zero-rated data for ECD learners, and the request for government to financially support NPOs.
  • Assist where you can, be it donating towards a feeding scheme for children, buying data packs, reporting apparent abuse if you become aware of it, making masks for school children, impoverished communities and NGOs, or reading a story on WhatsApp to children without internet access.
  • Support a child-focused NPO (especially those caring for abused and abandoned children, assisting ECDs, educating impoverished children while they are away from school and those feeding children) and help them to keep afloat (with donations of finance and goods).

As is typical in SA, the greatest adversity can be a precursor to change. This crisis is an opportunity for South Africa to address its lack of child-centric policies, listen to experts and make strategic decisions to ensure long-term changes in our approach to solving child hunger, education and safety. DM


First published in the Daily Maverick: 05.05.2020

To cite please use the author’s name, the year of publication, the title of the article, name of publication, date of publication.

Get In Touch

We won't spam!

Abandonment

Adoption

Child Abuse

Child and Youth Care Centres

Child Homicide

Child Protection Legislation & Child Rights

Covid and Children

Early Childhood Development

Foster Care

Health and Hunger

Missing and Trafficked Children

Undocumented Children