Karen Pillay

Opinion - The increase in heinous sexual violent crimes against children has raised my ire, enough to bring me out of a self-imposed hibernation from penning columns.

We recently marked Child Protection Week. However, statistics released in parliament show that at least 41% of all reported rape cases over the past three years involve children. 

In the same period, more than 2 000 children were murdered.

My question is: Should these alarming levels of violence against children not be treated as a national crisis? Are the statistics not enough to galvanise action from the highest levels? What are we waiting for?

In early 2017, there was a call from communities experiencing high levels of crime and sexual abuse against children for this to be declared a national crisis and for a children’s commission to be established. 

People and communities have had enough and are demanding the president’s office respond urgently on the matter. The situation that women and children are facing requires a national high level focus. 

Violent crime against women and children is not a uniquely South African problem. But, the brutality and frequency in child rapes, especially from known perpetrators, are alarming.

Moral regeneration must happen. There is a blatant disregard for human life, especially women and children. At all levels, people have become apathetic.

South Africa, as a nation, does not prioritise dealing with sexual crimes in an effective manner that will act as a deterrent. Many of the cases indicate the perpetrator has a criminal record. 

For first time offenders, justice is not served in a swift manner to act as a deterrent. Government has funding for corruption, but not for something as serious as this.

At community level, there is a serious lack of community policing. Criminals target children in communities that have no or little police presence, or where the officers are corrupt themselves.

SA has the most progressive laws, and the government appears to have adopted a zero tolerance approach to violence against women and children. However, gender-based violence is still so pervasive. 

This is a result of lack of proper implementation or monitoring of the impact of these laws.

Violent crimes against women and children is simply not a national priority. Otherwise, we would have seen progress with sustained implementation of policy and strategies.

Social and justice systems are overburdened, resulting in implementation gaps. 

Rape survivors find it difficult to deal with male service providers to report cases and are reluctant to trust officials who are supposed to assist them to receive care, support and seek justice.

We need to address the levels of insensitivity existing in key departments, including SAPS, courts and healthcare, to enable children to access their rights.

The curriculum and training material of police, doctors and psychologists needs to be reviewed, to ensure it deals with the ‘how’ of handling rape cases.

Special Victims’ Units or Child Protection Units at police stations should be prioritised. 

A monitoring body needs to assess every reported rape and sexual case, and hold departments accountable for services. 

Coordination of SAPS, social services and pathology services is critical for a survivor to experience swift justice with minimum or no secondary victimisation.

An increasing number of mental health patients are recounting childhood sexual violence or rape as the key barrier to them being happy, functional adults, and it gets worse as they age, if not handled properly during childhood. 

We need to advocate for the establishment of GBV community courts to fast track cases of GBV. Often the issue is lack of substantial evidence against perpetrators.

More prosecutors and dedicated SAPS teams are needed to track, arrest and sentence perpetrators. The voices of child victims/survivors should be amplified in court for both survivors and those who end up in body bags after being raped and sexually violated.

Tips for families and communities to assist survivors:

* Create more understanding on the rights of child survivors/victims: Implement the principles of the Victims Charter in homes and communities. Prepare children for court hearings. Often children don't understand the process, thereby increasing their fear. If they understand that court can help them, they will feel more comfortable to testify.

Take for example the 8-year-old who was allegedly raped by a family member or the step-daughter, who was allegedly raped for five years by her step-father. If these children were aware this was not acceptable, and they should have immediately reported it, perhaps they would not be scarred for life. If the mother had not walked in on the uncle in the act the abuse would have continued who knows for how long.

Perpetrators use codes to silence children. Threats include; “I will kill your parents”; “I will kill you” or “This is a game between us. Keep it secret”. We need to break codes of silence. Parents and care givers respond immediately when children report abuse to them.

* Parents or immediate family are often the barriers to children feeling comfortable to talk without experiencing secondary victimisation. Parents and care givers believe your children. A young child will not make up this story. Something happened to them, and you are their protective shield.

* We need dedicated social work teams, including a child psychologist, to prioritise child survivors and ensure the child feels safe and secure enough to talk about the issue and to understand what happened to them is not their fault.

The applicability of bail for perpetrators of sexual violence needs to be re-looked at from the perspective and safety of the survivor.

Survivors will go into flight mode (silence) should the perpetrator pose a threat to them or their family, and this becomes a victory for the perpetrator, a method of intimidating the survivor.

There should be a no bail regulation for any perpetrator of sexual violence unless the state has the resources or mechanisms in place to guarantee the protection of the survivor.

For example, safe houses where survivors can begin the healing and be prepared for a court trial

If bail is granted, often the perpetrator goes back to the same home, same community where the survivor/victim resides. This puts the survivor in an untenable position. Restraining orders are not enough. Families of the perpetrator should be held accountable and must become part of the protective measures for the survivor.

If the state has the resources and can use technology such as a tracking band on the leg or house arrest, then they can track the perpetrator. Often, the perpetrator is not tracked and they re-offend on bail.

If the state cannot or does not have the appropriate resources in place to protect the survivors, they should not grant bail to the perpetrator.

Not enough investigations are done in advance to confirm the profile of the perpetrator. Perpetrators have knowledge of how to manipulate bail.

They will appear remorseful and purport good behaviour in front of the magistrate to ensure they get bail. Had there been no bail conditions for most of the perpetrators, then perhaps children such as Courtney Pieters, Rene Roman and many others would have been alive today to live out their childhood and grow up to realise their dreams.

It is important to remember that such abuse occurs across the board in SA, regardless of economic status, race or background.

Crime has no colour and no boundaries in terms of social standing. We dilute the enormity of the issue if we are colouring it. Many cases are surfacing with people from all walks of life irrespective of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Communities and families need to be vigilant to detect signs of child sexual abuse to protect our children.

The protection of women and children is everyone responsibility, and everyone should make this their priority.

* Karen Pillay is an independent child rights activist.