For every child: protection, empowerment and equal orportunity
By Samkelo P. Mahlalela
Officiating at the launch of the “Children’s Month’ (June) at the Sibane Hotel in Ezulwini last week, the Deputy Prime Minister Honorable Paul Dlamini called upon the nation to reflect and take stock of actions that will make Swaziland a better place for children. The month of June gives the country an opportunity to focus on Swazi children, and reflect on their experiences - successes and challenges.
Dlamini described the Children’s Month as a time to intensify advocacy for children’s issues. He noted that Swaziland is called upon to join the rest of the African Union member states in reflecting and doing an introspection, to provide impetus for the necessary and urgent steps to eradicate harmful social and cultural practices against children, by preventing and addressing violence against them. As the DPM gave his address, my mind kept wandering to a conversation I had earlier in the day with a teacher from Ekwetsembeni Special School. It replayed what had unfolded, over and over.
As usual, stakeholders that work with children’s issues provided information desks at the launch event, where they enthusiastically offered information on the kind of work they do, to visitors to their exhibition stalls. All exhibitors used the forthcoming Day of the African Child (DAC) theme as a point of reference for their exhibitions and thus delved on how their work supports the demands of the theme. The Info Centre stall was positioned (as it turned out) at the end in the order that the colorfully branded organizational gazebos stood on the green lawns of the main conference room in which the formal event would unfold. As I set with my colleague watching those that followed the unwritten order of starting at the stall right next to the conference room entrance and then slowly snake their way towards the Info Centre stall, in my head, I went over the answer to the one question that they would all begin with, “So, who are you and what do you do?”
As it turned out, I was spot-on until a lady I was to learn was a teacher at Ekwetsembeni Special School was in my presence. In a sad low voice, she asked, “What can NERCHA do for our children who are most vulnerable to HIV infections? Is it possible to do some research into the effects of rape and sexual abuse on HIV infections among special populations?” She quietly narrated how children living with disabilities (both physical and mental impairment) from her school were an easy target for rape and physical abuse carried-out in the bushes next to the school. She narrated a sickening situation that rapists got away with the brutal act because these children had mental challenges and in many instances, they are unable to provide strong evidence that could lead to the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators.
As the lady walked on towards the direction of organizations that I referred her to regarding research matters, I felt so ashamed of the type of society that we have become. All children have a right to be protected from abuse and neglect, by all members of the adult community. Us, Africans even proudly say “It takes a village to raise a child.” I realized that the protection that should be provided to children is now largely absent, owing to a growing list of selfish adults who prefer to ruin the psychological and social future of our children. My heart sank as I tried to fathom how the shameful, sad and inhumane act by the perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse on hapless children, impacts them.
Conversation with myself
“Do the children now assume the rape and assault as part of a normal life and perhaps, have likely become perpetrators themselves? What about their HIV risks and the many others that the rape and sexual abuse perpetrators have sexual links with?” These and many other questions flooded my mind.
While the business end of the launch of the Children’s Month proceeded, I remained a troubled soul. The reality is that statistics from the National Study on Violence against Children and Young Women show that: One in three Swazi women have suffered some form of sexual abuse as a child; one in four have experiences physical violence before the age of 18. In my mind, I accessed anecdotal evidence and it suggested that a high number of women living with disability are victims of abuse. I was further troubled by the opportunities for sexual exploitation presented by not only the Ekwetsembeni, scenario but by the situation of the many children living with disabilities, in the four corners of Swaziland.
That the national study on violence findings further concluded that violence and sexual assault against girls primarily takes place at home, disturbed me even further. Given that most girls are reluctant to report abuse or in many instance, do not rightly understand they have been violated, I went cold as the prospect of the situation of those living with disabilities, hit me. “We have a serious public health challenge with the situation of children living with disability” my mind concluded.
I recalled that the Royal Swaziland Police Annual Report for the year 2012 showed that there were 499 rape cases reported, and that these were on the rise each year. I shivered a bit at the thought of the many cases that were not reported, owing to the shame and helplessness that often inhibits survivors from reporting rape cases. How many of those that suffered in silence were children and of those, how many were living with disabilities, I wondered.
A gloomy picture was painted by the thought that the 2007 Census indicated 19 747 children aged 10-19, as living with disabilities, which meant that the Ekwetsembeni scenario was just a drop in the ocean. Historically, children living with disabilities are marginalized and do not have access to education opportunities to the same level as their non-disabled peers, which renders them continually vulnerable to poverty and limits or restricts their access to education opportunities. I questioned myself as to how many of these children were kept away from the public eye, and were falling prey to the scums of the earth that are molesters and rapist.
Need for a tête-à-tête by different stakeholders
The picture painted was gloomy. I forced myself to pay attention to the DPM’s address. Dlamini noted that the Day of the African Child (DAC) theme for 2017 calls upon the eradication of all forms of socio-economic, traditional, customary, religious practices or otherwise, that are injurious to children’s physical, psychological and social well-being.
By the time he concluded his speech by announcing that DAC 2017 will be commemorated on Thursday 15 June at Eqinisweni Primary School in Nhlangano in the Shiselweni Region, my mind had already strayed again. This time, my mind was occupied by the need to have a conversation on the issues that affect children in the country, and at the very top of the list, those of children with disabilities
The exchange should be held in our homes, in the churches, and in our communities. We need to talk about the abuse of our children by these monsters that have made it an everyday occurrence. We need to find means to stop them dead in their tracks. We need to stop the slap in the wrist sentences that do not deter them.
We do also need to realize that this dialogue should not just be for adults only. It is a conversation that needs to be held with our children too. Children need to be given information from which they can draw knowledge and tools they can use when faced with banana skin situations that may result in exposure to HIV risks. Yes, government has a big role to play in terms of putting the relevant policies and pushing for the enactment of protective laws; but it is the individual parent, the family, the church, and the community that has the responsibility of raising children with virtues such as dignity, self-respect, respect for others, and self-control (know when and how to say, no and yes).
Rape and sexual abuse of children is more prevalent than we would like to believe. None of our children is safe. Admittedly, having a frank conversation on the rape and sexual abuse of children will not wholly protect our children from this heinous act, but it is a good point of reference to start from.
For every child: protection, empowerment and equal opportunity. Not just this Children’s Month but beyond! This way, we will contribute to helping our children to STAY FREE of HIV.