African Child Trauma Conference 2020

Children at increased risk of abuse and violence, as COVID-19 takes its toll.

Madame Programme Director, Distinguished guests, Children

It is a great honour for me to be invited to this African Child Trauma Conference. I am humbled by the opportunity to be engaging with you around child protection. We are all parents and caregivers in one way or the other and we need to take care of every child.

Demographic highlights  South Africa is a middle-income country with over 25 years into the advent of democracy with remarkable and considerable progress made to improve the wellbeing of its citizens. South Africa is recognised worldwide for its good legislative framework and policies. Furthermore, the Government has shown its commitment in securing human rights as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic. South Africa has committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as articulated in the National Development Plan: Vision 2030 including the Mid Term and Strategic Framework 2019-2025. Of importance in the National Development Plan is the priority on building social cohesion and safer communities!

South Africa has a considerably high child population with 19.7 million children under the age of 18.  The history of Apartheid has played a critical role in the demographic composition of the country. One of consequences of Apartheid has been the resultant internal migration. An example can be seen in Gauteng, where nearly 1 in 5 people have migrated from other provinces. This has had a negative impact in the household composition where only 1 in 3 children live with both their biological parents as people move from rural areas to cities for better opportunities and living conditions. The scourge of HIV and AIDS has had far reaching implications on living conditions of children with one in six having lost a parent. Furthermore, COVID 19 has had an unprecedented impact on the lives of children. In March this year, the President’s pronouncement for the lockdown of the country as guided by the National Disaster Act led to the closure of schools, which resulted in many children having to interrupt their learning journey, going hungry as they no longer benefitted from the school nutrition programme and becoming more exposed to risks and abuse (either in their homes or online.

Globally, UNICEF found a growing trend in the increase of child abuse cases during COVID 19 amongst other important issues that impact on child development. The Global Status Report on Preventing Violence Against Children found that: One out of two children is estimated to experience violence each year; Close to 300 million children worldwide aged 2–4 years regularly experience violent discipline by their caregivers. Furthermore, the report states: “The COVID-19 pandemic and societies’ response to it profoundly affects all aspects of our lives. School closures have impacted some 1.5 billion children, while movement restrictions, loss of income, isolation, and overcrowding have heightened levels of stress and anxiety in parents, caregivers and children. Stay-at-home measures have limited the usual sources of support for families and individuals – be they friends, extended family, or professionals – further eroding their ability to successfully cope with crises and the new routines of daily life.” 

Unfortunately, South Africa is no exception to how COVID has upended people’s lives leaving children increasingly vulnerable.

Plight of children in the country  SA is a country affected by inequalities.  Large disparities exist in terms of access to and quality of critical social services, such as social protection, birth registration, early childhood care and development, health care and education. 

These inequalities manifest in poor child development outcomes.  ⦁    With children not having equitable access to healthcare, evidence shows that 27% of children under the age of five are stunted; 40% of children do not receive their necessary vaccination; resulting in children dying of preventable diseases.   ⦁    In terms of education, studies have indicated that 74% of grade four learners are not  able to read for meaning and 29% are not able to read at all.   ⦁    Regarding violence, one in three (1 in 3) children experience abuse before reaching the age of 18. ⦁    SA is not unique, globally almost 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys suffer sexual abuse. Self-reported child sexual abuse is 30 times higher and physical abuse 75 times higher than official reports. ⦁    Homicide is among the top five causes of death in adolescence. ⦁    Violence and abuse harms families across generations, as well as within communities.

Violence against women and children undermines social and economic development; it reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty, inequalities and continues to impede progress towards achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP 2030) and the realization of the constitutional imperatives. These challenges in wellbeing should be concerning to all of us as duty bearers and those who are concerned in livelihoods of communities and that of children.

I encourage you all to read the Save the Children Study conducted in 2015, on the Economic Cost of Violence Against Children (VAC), which assessed the cost of child abuse on the economy and estimated that in 2015 alone, the cost of children being hurt affected the economy up 5,93% of GDP. Could you imagine if those 17 Billion Rand could be spend on investing in children instead! Impact of child abuse stays with children throughout the rest of their lives and childhood trauma severely affects the ability of a child to thrive throughout his or her lifetime. 

The National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide articulates on the impact of violence on the children and the resultant long-lasting scars of trauma. At the forefront of the NSP is the importance of rolling out violence prevention programmes with special focus on protecting children and building stable, families and empowering caregivers with the skills and tools to provide a more nurturing environment for their children. 

In 2017 South Africa became a pathfinder country and a member of the Global Partnership to End Violence. The latter together with other partners developed the INSPIRE framework as to guide evidence-based interventions that have shown to have high impact in making the world a better place for children. The INSPIRE framework is made up of seven strategies: I - Implementation and enforcement of laws N - Addressing Norms and values that are harmful for the upbringing of children and promoting patriarchy and cultural stereotypes  S - Safe environments and communities  P - Parental and caregivers support through trauma counselling and support for children who experience violence I - Income generation and economic strengthening for vulnerable families  R - Response and support services to those who are violated and suffered from traumatic experiences E -  Education and life skills training for young people I hope we can reflect the seven principles from the INSPIRE Framework in the outcome document for action!

This African Child Trauma Conference is taking place at an opportune time. These annual conferences have created great opportunities to build knowledge, awareness and networks as to provide solutions for integrated services to victims of violence and trauma.  In 2019, the focus of the conference Charter was on healing the nation especially children from traumatic experience, culminating in duty bearers attending the conference signed a Charter ‘Leaving No One Behind, Preventing Violence Against Children! highlighting the focus areas to be prioritised for the betterment of the lives of the children including amongst others; the prevention of violence against children, promoting positive discipline, dealing with disadvantages that perpetuate poverty.

This year, the conference happens amidst heightened distress for children, as national and global communities adjust to the state of emergency; requiring rapid response and innovative solutions to mitigate against not only the spread COVID-19, but the unintended risks the lockdowns have brought to us all. The African Child Trauma conference provides a unique and accessible platform for child protection stakeholders to connect with policy makers, civil society, academia, corporate representatives, and children as to share and consolidate their vision, to build consensus and forge new and innovative partnerships to accelerate change in the landscape of child protection in Africa.  

We need to work together by sharing the best practices and learn from each other.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when models have already indicated effectiveness somewhere in Africa. What is very critical is to adapt such models and ensure applicability to a larger scale.  As the one UN Family, we are here to work with government, civil society, private sector and committed individuals to the noble course of protecting children.

UNICEF, has the pivotal mandate of protecting the rights of children and all other UN Agencies do work with children under such stewardship, the same applies to UN women, UNODC etc. Such agencies provide leadership and work with other UN agencies to give effect to the mandates.

It is wonderful to see how all different sectors have come together at this conference from all levels, from the UN in NY to the African Union from Addis and other regional and national partners but especially the children themselves. I am very impressed how you have created the ability to reach the hearts and minds of many as to promote social values and promote positive behaviors that can reach the most vulnerable children and change their lives forever. This is very critical. 

None of us can address the risk factors affecting children alone.  It requires partnership, unity and building of referral pathways to each other.  The opportunity like this one will maximize our strengths collectively; broaden our knowledge and we will learn from each other and carry the lessons learnt forward.

By working together, with a sense of urgency, we can achieve more! I thank you

Press Release:

Speech by
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
Resident Coordinator
Nardos Bekele-Thomas
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations