Today marks the beginning of the annual Child Protection Week. The concept, under the leadership of the Department of Social Development, stems from the African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child", which emphasises the role of the wider community in keeping children safe.
This year's Child Protection Week is unfortunately marred by recent and increasing media reports of growing incidents of sexual offences committed against children, specifically what is being called "child rape".
We read, for example, of a man found guilty of raping a 13 year old between 1998 and 2007, fathering three children with her. Yet the court has postponed handing down a sentence 71 times.
We saw Ian Appleton, found guilty of repeatedly raping a 7 year old boy over the course of two years, being sentenced to a mere five years' imprisonment under correctional supervision legislation, which allows him to be freed and placed under house arrest after at least 10 months. This despite the existence of mandatory minimum sentencing of 25 years for raping a child.
It is equally shocking to read about the scourge of child rapes in the Northern Cape, and that this phenomenon has reached crisis proportions in the Eastern Cape.
While detailed statistics on the types of sexual offences committed in South Africa are virtually non-existent, last year 28 128 sexual offences against children were reported, meaning that 77 children are sexually violated in this country every day.
These reports cast doubts on the effectiveness of institutional mechanisms in the criminal justice system to deal with the detection, prevention and prosecution of sexual offences committed against children, or the rehabilitation and reintegration of such sexual offenders.
Children are the most vulnerable members of our society and the Bill of Rights makes specific provisions for and places a clear obligation on society and government to protect them from harm and abuse.
Protecting the children of South Africa is a priority for the Democratic Alliance (DA).
Government needs to demonstrate that it is equally serious about the safety and well-being of the children of our country. It can do this by effecting the following six proposals:
In the first instance, the specialised Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS) within the South African Police Service (SAPS) must be adequately empowered. The FCS was re-established and became fully operational on 1 April 2011 after the highly effective unit was controversially disbanded in 2006. This dispersed specialist personnel, police officers and detectives leading to the tragic loss of much-needed expertise.
The Minister of Police and the SAPS has to urgently assess the effectiveness and capacity of the FCS and ensure that the units are empowered to detect and investigate incidents of child abuse and sexual offences committed against children in particular.
Sexual Offences Courts must be re-established across the country. The decision to discontinue these courts in several places across the country is tragic. Minister Radebe recently announced that he will conduct an urgent investigation into the re-establishment of Sexual Offences Courts.
This is not necessarily sufficient to improve conditions for survivors of sexual offences or the conviction rate for these crimes. The courts must be complemented by the establishment of fully operational Thuthuzela Care Centres (TCCs) across the country, the unique one-stop, integrated response to the growing incidences of violent sexual acts against children.
It is equally important that specialised sexual offences prosecutors are trained to ensure that the finalisation of sexual offences cases are dealt with properly and speedily. The combined efforts of a specialised court and specialist centre like the TCCs are the best way to ensure not only conviction, but also the necessary victim-support. The NPA has also confirmed the effectiveness of this combined approach and has been advocating the reestablishment of these specialised courts for some time.
It is even more concerning that the decision to disband the specialised courts appears to have come from the magistrates themselves. They are apparently reluctant to sit in these courts. Reasons we have been given are that it is career limiting and / or that it is too traumatic. Their objections are curious given that similar concerns are not raised in respect of specialised commercial crimes courts. As regards trauma, it is equally, if not more traumatic, for the police investigating these matters and the prosecutors who prepare the cases for court. We would like to make a special plea to the lower court judiciary to assist in every way possible to ensure that these courts are re-established.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) must again publish detailed statistics on sexual offences. Their decision to no longer provide detailed accurate statistics undermines efforts to craft a comprehensive and informed strategy to detect and prevent these types of crimes.
Detailed statistics must be available on all categories and types of sexual offences to align with the new Sexual Offences Act and its provisions, making specific provision for crimes committed against boys and girls under the age of 16. At a minimum these statistics must be made available annually.
The DA believes that a single, consolidated sexual offenders' register should exist under the auspices of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development.
Government is currently failing our children due to the chaotic state of the Child Protection Register and National Sexual Offences Register and the confusion created by the existence of two such registers. This creates the risk of people who have been convicted of sexual offences against children being employed by organisations who work with children because they cannot check against the register as it is incomplete.
The existence of two registers is also a wasteful duplication of functions - especially given the fact that child protection services are severely underfunded and under-resourced.
A single register will ensure a synchronised approach to recording sexual offenders following successful conviction or reported abuse. The DA will be submitting a private members legislative proposal in this regard. The register should also have a detailed breakdown of the offences committed and the nature of the abuse against children.
To adequately serve the needs of children and protect them from harm, the national government must prioritise boosting the number of professional and highly skilled social workers, specifically those skilled in dealing with sexual offences committed against children in our most vulnerable communities.
South Africa needs at least 60 000 social workers for the implementation of the Children's Act alone, but there are currently only 16 740 registered social workers representing a 70% shortfall.
Social workers render a significant welfare service to our country. Children, in particular, who are abused, at risk, abandoned or neglected, are dependant on specialised social work professionals who can dedicate sufficient time to addressing their needs.
The national department of Social Development must follow the example set by the DA-led Western Cape Provincial Government in promoting social work as a scarce skill and ensuring that social work graduates are effectively absorbed into the system.
A comprehensive study must be conducted into the effectiveness of current measures to prevent sexual offences from occurring, as well as mechanisms in place to rehabilitate and reintegrate sexual offenders.
The study must also outline concrete proposals for implementing a more coordinated and effective approach to preventing sexual offences against children, focusing not only on the institutional mechanisms but also on programmes and interventions within broader society and in communities.
A plethora of committees and task teams exist, without any perceived benefit to the fight against child abuse and sexual offences committed against children. The DA will call for quarterly reports from each of these bodies in the relevant portfolio committees to improve the monitoring of their work and its effectiveness on combating sexual offences against children in particular.
The DA will be raising these proposals with the relevant government departments and cabinet ministers through the respective portfolio committees and other parliamentary means available to us. Government must start putting the needs of children first, beginning with a commitment to the proposals outlined above.
We have a collective responsibility to ensure that children who are abused, neglected, at risk or vulnerable are protected and receive the necessary support and services they deserve and are entitled to. Ensuring that the children of today are safe and their well-being taken care of is central to guaranteeing a prosperous future for all of South Africa and her citizens.
Debbie Schafer, Shadow Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development