South Africa has one of the more vibrant legal frameworks for protecting its children. Children’s rights are central to the ethos of the Constitution, which in section 28(1) states, “[e]very child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health services and social services; and to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse, or degradation”. Paradoxically, due to high rates of inequality, this cohort has suffered immensely. Many burdens, residual from an apartheid system, fall disproportionately onto the country’s youth.

The National Development Plan (NDP) is a framework for South Africa, which sets out to eliminate poverty and inequality by 2030. Although progress has been made in the two decades since the nation’s transition to democracy, poverty is rife and inequality remains among the highest in the world. The NDP gives policy suggestions for children in the areas of early childhood development and social protection, but further development is needed.

The non-governmental organisation, Save the Children of South Africa, recommends developing a national plan specifically addressing children’s rights, involving a myriad of stakeholders such as civil society, media outlets, and the private sector.  Accountability from these actors is crucial to ensure that funding is allocated in the right areas to eliminate corruption and to ensure transparency. In addition to the NDP, a National Youth Policy 2015-2020 (NYP) was developed for all young people in South Africa, to ensure an environment that enables them to achieve their ultimate capabilities. The NYP acknowledges the international standards for children, which are outlined in the SDGs, and draws attention to the mechanisms that are catalysts for youth potential in South Africa. 

Although policies like the NDP and NYP are crucial components in outlining the principles and goals for children’s rights, jurisprudence is necessary to achieve the policy aims.  There is a plethora of legislation safeguarding the rights of children, but two of the overarching laws are the Children’s Act of 2005 and the Child Justice Act of 2008. The Children’s Act gives effect to the particular rights of children protected by the Constitution. The Child Justice Act establishes a criminal justice system for children, which is highlighted in section 2(b)(i) “the objective of the Act is to promote the spirit of Ubuntu in the child justice system through fostering children’s sense of dignity and worth”.  Albeit the nature of these laws is to protect children, Save the Children South Africa argues that a lack of resources hinders the full implementation of both pieces of legislation. 

South Africa largely falls short of its constitutional promise of promoting the rights of children and poverty tends to run parallel with dangerous social determinants of health for children. This is particularly evident in the 2016 report, Global goals for every child: Progress and disparities among children in South Africa (the Report), compiled by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which illustrates the progress and disparities among children in South Africa. According to the Report, nearly seven out of 10 children are currently living in households below the upper-bound poverty line. Infant mortality also remains high, with glaring disparities between black and white children: black children are five times more likely to die before the age of one, compared to their white counterparts. Additionally, malnutrition can be seen widely, manifesting as both undernutrition and obesity, which the Report argues is a “double burden”. One in five children is considered to have stunted growth, and amongst poor children this rate rises to 28%. Undernutrition can have long-term detrimental effects on cognitive development, as well as inhibit children from reaching their full potential, which would typically result from adequate caloric intake. In addition to malnutrition, children further remain vulnerable to communicable diseases. An estimated 235 000 children under the age of 15 are currently living with HIV. 

A contrast between race and class amongst children has led to stark disparities in access to resources and services. The Report states, “almost one in five of the poorest children live in households that still rely on rivers, streams and other unimproved sources for their drinking water”. Recent estimates gathered from civil society groups assert that it is likely that upwards of seven million girls miss school every month because they do not have access to sanitary products. Additionally, poor children are less likely to be exposed to quality education and are half as likely to attain quality early childhood development (ECD). According to the Report, 50% of children in Grade 9 have not mastered their home language, and, as a result, nearly all fail to meet national math standards. Children with disabilities and mental health issues also remain vulnerable, with a lack of facilities to cater to their needs.  The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that one in 10 teen deaths in the country are due to suicide, with figures from the Western Cape showing a staggering 20% of teen deaths from suicide.

Although this data does not shine a positive light on the status of children in South Africa, progress has been made in fulfilling the rights of children since 1994. However, as stated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, this day should emphasise a commitment to the children who are often “forgotten and overlooked: those deprived of their liberties”. The statistics are more than just mere numbers. They represent a large portion of the 19.7 million children of South Africa, who may or may not fall through the cracks, due to the failure to realise what is promised by our Constitution. Far too many children remain in the shadows, victims of the socio-political system. These are the children who must be acknowledged on Universal Children’s Day. These are the children whose plight must be recognised as we are reminded that “Every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, basic health services and social services; and to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse, or degradation.

By Kiah Murphy: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights

Photo credit: AwesomeSA via / CC BY-ND

This article was written independently by an intern of the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CFCR) and represents the views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, its staff or members of its Panel of Experts. The Centre for Constitutional Rights is, however, committed to a broad public dialogue aimed at the promotion and protection of the values, rights and principles enshrined in the Constitution.