It Is Clear We Have Failed Our Children

politics Hunger Schooling diseases chidren's rights
Monday, 13 December, 2010 - 10:53

Child mortality, lack of access to education, lack of access to clean water and sanitation and poverty, characterise the conditions under which children live in South Africa

In December 1954, the General Assembly of the United Nations recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children's Day, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children. It recommended that the Day was to be observed also as a day of activity devoted to promoting the welfare of the children of the world. The date 20th November marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989.

Universal Children’s Day is therefore an appropriate time to reflect on how South Africa treats our children.  While we have made progress since 1994 in the services to children and resources allocated, a time of honest reflection to assess exactly how we are doing is called for. 

Oliver Tambo said that the children of any nation are its future and that a country that does not value its children does not deserve its future. It is our assessment that despite having signed the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child and our many child-friendly policies, we are not doing particularly well in how we care for our children and that our future is at risk. 

Our commitment to child rights is more in words than in actions.  Whilst our politicians continually talk about how important it is to protect our children, the political will is clearly missing.  No amount of baby hugging and baby kissing by politicians can disguise the fact that we are failing our children.

So what is the evidence to lead us to this conclusion?   

Education is a human right and all children are promised education in our Constitution.  Every child is entitled to nine years of quality education. Whilst we have the legislation and policies in place for this, the quality of education provided is, in most cases, very poor.  Children attend dysfunctional schools, are taught by teachers who arrive late for school and drunk, are taught by some teachers who sexually abuse them, do not have desks to sit at and have no textbooks to learn from. 

It is encouraging to see that South Africa has a high level of school enrolment and attendance between Grades 1–12, with an attendance rate of 96.4 percent in 2008.  Notwithstanding this figure, there are still some 400 000 children across South Africa that are not attending school. And the quality is poor. Our children leave school unable to read, write or count at the required levels.  Our Grade 3 and 6 numeracy and literacy results are amongst the lowest in the world and of every 100 children who enter Grade 1 only some 30 percent eventually succeed in passing Grade 12.

The main reason for children dropping out of school is poverty.  Other reasons include illness, exam failure and pregnancy in girls. 

Access to school is an essential requirement in achieving ones human right to an education. Many barriers exist that may hinder access to education including extensive distances to the nearest school, poor roads, and lack of transport, among others.  According to Statistics South Africa (2009), 21 percent of children between the ages of seven to 13 years and 33 percent of high school aged children had to travel more than 30 minutes to their nearest school. These figures are particularly high in rural areas and are on the increase with many schools becoming overcrowded and children being forced to travel even further.

Basic rights, such as the right to clean and drinkable water, essential for good health and hygiene, are denied.  Whilst children have the right to access to sufficient water, water is often of poor quality and our young children become particularly susceptible to illnesses such as diarrhoea and cholera.

From the General Household Survey 2008, it can be seen that nearly seven million children in South Africa live in households that do not have direct access to clean drinking water. This is devastating, and worse still is that there has been very little improvement in children’s access to water from 2002 to 2008.  There are prominent differences in access to water across the 9 provinces, with over 90 percent of children in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Free State having an adequate supply of water, whereas in KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo, water is easily accessible to less than 50 percent of children. 

Adding to this is the lack of access to basic sanitation in many households across the country. Poor sanitation is common throughout South Africa including: unventilated pit latrines, bucket toilets and in some instances, no toilet facilities at all. Inadequate sanitation results in children becoming vulnerable to a range of illnesses and diseases, such as cholera, bilharzia and skin infections, thereby compromising their health and nutritional status. The State’s goal to provide adequate sanitation to all and to eradicate the bucket system has helped to improve access from 47 percent in 2002 to 61 percent in 2008. This achievement is encouraging but there are still over seven million children making use of the bucket system and unventilated pit latrines.  These seven million children are at risk of contracting diseases that contribute to the 6.7 percent mortality rate of children under the age of five.

South Africa adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.  Goal four aims to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds from the 1990 figure from 60 deaths per 1 000 live births to 20 by 2015. However, our current mortality rate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens is a devastating 67 deaths per 1 000 live births. 70 000 children, under the age of five, die each year.  Rather than moving towards our target, we are moving away from it. The very respected South African Child Gauge 2009/2010 published by the Children’s Institute lists the five leading causes of death in under five year olds is that of HIV/AIDS (35 percent), Neonatal problems (30 percent), Diarrhoea (11 percent), Infections (11 percent) and Pneumonia (six percent). These children are dying from preventable conditions due to deficiencies in our health system as well as environmental risk factors.

Recent research conducted in a number of hospitals as part of a Child Healthcare Problem Identification Programme, found that 60 percent of children under the age of five years who died were underweight for their age and 33 percent were severely malnourished. It is interesting to note that the majority of children who died from malnourishment were also infected with HIV/AIDS. Despite the fact that there has been a substantial decrease in the number of reported cases of child hunger, the 2008 General Household Survey shows that there are still 3.3 million children living in households where child hunger has been reported. There appears to be significant inequalities across the provinces and population groups, with the highest rates of child hunger being reported in the North West Province, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Child hunger is found predominantly among the African population (20 percent), whilst Coloured children make up 10 percent of the total figure of child hunger and White children only two percent.

Louis Reynolds and David Sanders, in a news opinion piece entitled ‘Our children are dying in droves – and this is why’, put it clearly: “Young child deaths are a family tragedy. But the impact of low birth weight, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS is devastating even for children who survive. Their physical and mental development is impaired, and they are more likely to develop other diseases later on. These longer-term impacts have adverse consequences in both human and economic terms.”

When he was Education Minister, Professor Kader Asmal, once said, when speaking about children and education in South Africa that “We must not fail them”. It is clear from the evidence that we have failed our children.

Tragically, government denies that our children are substantially at risk. Pointing to wordy policies, strategy documents and intentions and plans will not educate our children, will not feed our children and will not clothe or house our children. Only action driven by the political will to put children first and the accompanying financial resources will.  We did it wonderfully for the 2010 soccer World Cup.  We can do it for our children.

- Lauren van Niekerk is Programme Manager at the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

- Eric Atmore is Associate Professor in Social Development at the University of Cape Town and Director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development.

This article was first published in the Star and Cape Argus newspapers. It is republished here with the permission of the authors.

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