It marks the day that the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Children in 1959 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989. Both of these declarations state that children have the right to protection from violence – among other rights. According to recent studies, South Africa is in violation of this basic children’s right.

Research shows that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence in the world, where violence is measured, and it includes an unprecedented high rate of violence against children in schools. This has garnered a lot of media attention in the recent months. According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of South Africa (UNISA), 55% of the pupils surveyed reported that they had experienced school violence – including bullying, assault, sexual harassment, corporal punishment and theft.

The Facts on Violence in Schools

The protection of children from all forms of violence is a fundamental right guaranteed by the CRC, signed and ratified by South Africa. The UN’s Global Study on violence against children defines violence as, “all forms of physical, mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse.” Not only is South Africa a signatory of the CRC but Section 28 of the Constitution states that, “every child has the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse and degradation.

Violence against children takes place in a multitude of settings: in the home, at school, in the care of the justice system and in the community. It includes rape, homicide, corporal punishment and bullying, along with a number of other acts defined by the UN. In schools it mainly manifests in three forms: sexual assault, corporal punishment and bullying. This infringes on the children’s rights, including their right to basic education.

The Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) determined that schools are one of the most common sites for sexual assaults. According to a recent study published in the Cape Times, in the past three months at least two minors a day have been raped. The study further states that approximately 21% of rapes perpetrated against minors occurred in schools – especially rural schools. One educator described the sexual assault of pupils as a “fringe benefit” because of the low pay that educators receive. However, this is not to say that educators are the only perpetrators of rape; students are also responsible. For example, in March 2013, a five-year-old girl was raped by three boys on the grounds of a Mitchell’s Plain School. These cases are becoming more prominent, and there appears to be little to no repercussions for these actions.

Corporal punishment also plagues schools. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) estimated that 2.2 million children were subjected to corporal punishment in 2012 – a considerable rise in incidences. This form of punishment can cause serious injuries, as well as psychological damage. Section 10 of the 1996 South African Schools Act prohibits corporal punishment, yet more than 12 000 children are victimised daily.

Bullying is the third common form of school violence. According to a study conducted by the CJCP, 41% of students in Cape Town, 33% in Durban and 13% in the Eastern Cape reported being bullied.

Consequences of Violence

School violence has a grave effect on learners.  It undermines a child’s future potential, and damages their physical and psychological wellbeing. Studies show that there are serious repercussions for a student’s academic success, including:

Violence begets violence, and the silence surrounding these actions creates an environment that condones this behaviour. Children who experience violence assume that it is intrinsic to society and therefore acceptable, creating a violent cycle that continues into perpetuity.

Assessment of State Involvement

The South African government is obligated under the Constitution to protect against violence and to ensure children’s right to basic education. The Department of Education, the justice system and Chapter Nine institutions share this responsibility. Recent incidents speak to the fact that the government is failing to combat school violence. For example, the Western Cape Education Department is the only province with a binding procedure to deal with corporal punishment. Without a concerted effort from government, no progress will be made to end the problem.

Similarly, educators are bound by law to protect the children that attend their schools. An educator assumes the role of loco parentis: a legal and moral duty of care for the pupils; acting as parent or guardian while pupils are on the school grounds. Educators have an obligation under common law to protect the student’s physical and mental wellbeing but the extent of school violence makes it obvious that educators are not taking this role seriously.

Laws are in place to protect children against violence in schools but it is not enough for the state to institute laws. With school violence on the increase government needs a clear, concise plan of action to confront and tackle the problem; otherwise the education system will continue to be negatively affected. There needs to be more adequate legal procedures for dealing with perpetrators, as well as a practical plan for the prevention of abuse. Currently there is a national instruction plan in place but its application is limited.


On Universal Children’s Day, it is important to reflect upon the rights of the child and the improvements needed to ensure that children receive their rights. It is evident that South Africa needs to take steps towards realising children’s rights. And all South African children deserve the right to a safe learning environment, a right guaranteed under the Constitution.  As Nelson Mandela stated, “a better society will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures”. It is time that South Africa protects the welfare of its children to insure that the future of South Africa is bright.

By Esther Sampson: intern, FW de Klerk Foundation 

This article was written by an intern of the FW de Klerk Foundation and represents the views of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of the FW de Klerk Foundation, its staff or members of its Board Members. The FW de Klerk Foundation is, however, committed to a broad public dialogue aimed at the promotion and protection of the values, rights and principles enshrined in the Constitution. 

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND