The Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum faced some tough challenges in 2013. The number of children’s rights violations brought to the attention of the Forum either as individual cases or as concerns by member organizations struggling to attend to children’s needs in their separate capacities, was simply overwhelming. The capacity to deal with so many children’s issues, all requiring urgent attention, is limited, and with emotions running high, it has been very difficult to prioritize areas of concern in which some form of advocacy intervention could have a reasonable level of impact.
An analysis of the Forum’s journal entries, conducted by Red Cherry Research at the end of the year, revealed that there were 218 case work related entries of which 61% were complex child abuse cases, most of these sexual abuse cases in the six to eight year old cohort. Other cases relate mainly to children in need of care who because of the disability or severe behavioural problems are particularly hard to place. More than half of these cases were managed by the founding organizations and or other close NGO partners.
A number of activities revolved around the implementation or development of child protection policies, ranging from the development of safety policy at local schools to campaigning (with other organization) at the level of national policy.
Press releases were made about specific cases of child abuse, shaken baby syndrome and male survivors of sexual abuse. This involved articles in the print media as well as participation in discussions on radio and television stations.
Advocacy processes are by nature long-term and their impact is dependent on a number of external variables, most notably the absence or presence of political will to make things happen. It is difficult to attribute to success or failure of an effort to any one intervention, group, or set of circumstances. With this in mind, we are however proud to have contributed to some important changes or improvements in policy, practice and/or in the practical everyday realities of children:
o After years of campaigning for the closure of the Central Methodist Church as an illegal shelter where hundreds of women and children have been subjected to violence and abuse, the church is still open. However, it has lost its allure as the only viable sanctuary for Zimbabwean migrants, and even the women who could never conceive of making a life for themselves outside of the “protection” of the cult-like figure head, are now moving out with their children. Latest news is that the building will be closed by the end of the year
o One illegal shelter into which families were encouraged to “abandon” their children for a fee, has been successfully closed down, and the children have been reunited with their caregivers
o The Department of Social Development has committed itself to closing the crèche in the basement of the church, where babies are being exposed to highly unhygienic risks (raw sewage, no ventilation etc.) and finding alternative care of the children
o Children who have suffered severe trauma as a result of sexual or other violence now cannot be denied immediate access to therapy on the grounds that such therapy would contaminate their evidence in court. This is an important court ruling which civil society organization, including JCAF campaigned for after a severely traumatized child was denied therapy for years while the court case against the alleged perpetrator dragged on.
o Luke Lamprecht, the convenor of JCAF, has been actively involved in convening a successful conference on the “Back to Basics” of child protection which was attended by hundreds of social workers and others working on the coal face of child protection
o Johanna Kistner has set new standards for the assessment of juvenile offenders after spending time with seven boys accused of raping a mentally disabled girl. In the context of extreme poverty and generalized family and community dysfunction, she raised the question in her report about “who is to be held accountable for the behaviour of our children.” She has since been asked to join the Legal Aid SA’s panel of experts
o When a 11 year refugee old girl was refused treatment for epilepsy at the Johannesburg Hospital because she could not pay the R20 000 demanded by the hospital clerks and nursing staff, the senior medical staff to whom the matter was reported were so outraged that they organized themselves in protest and undertook to take the matter to the Human Right Commission. The child was eventually seen and provided with treatment free of charge as is her constitutional right. However, the matter of refugees being expected to pay outrageous amounts for access to health care is an issue we continue to fight with other organizations, including Section 27, a powerful advocacy organization that has already taken the state to court on a number of violations of constitutional rights.
A tough internal reflection and interrogation process among the founder members has set the agenda for more coordinated and selective approach to advocacy based on the priority areas of access to health, education and child protection services. We hope that this will be more effective in focusing limited human and financial resources on where we can realistically achieve the greatest impact.
A LOSS OF INNOCENCE
At a recent JCAF meeting, the convenor, Luke Lamprecht used the term “loss of innocence” to capture the feelings of service providers in the current political and economic climate. We can, as counsellors, social workers, therapists, and community workers no longer draw on the assumption that the political and economic elites and decision-makers of our time, as well as their implementers lower down on the ranking scales of power, have the best interests of the most vulnerable and marginalized citizens at heart. Every attempt to get even the most basic (constitutionally mandated) services for our clients requires a massive amount of persuasive energy, threats of legal action, and even aggression, often with little or no results.
Nowhere is the loss on innocence more visible than on the streets of our city, in its overcrowded inner city dwellings, in the match box houses of the townships, and the crude shacks on abandoned pieces of ground. We started this report in a state of mourning, for Madiba, but more importantly for the many lives senselessly lost because of the lack of care and respect for children and other marginalized groups in our society. In the week it has taken to complete this report a six year old child was killed by two eight year old school mates at break at a local primary school. Two teenage girls were found murdered in the veld, also in Soweto, and the boys arrested for their murder are a mere 16 years old. Twenty seven illegal miners, mostly desperate Zimbabweans died of carbon dioxide poisoning last Monday, after spending days underground in an abandoned mine shaft in Roodepoort, searching the morsels of gold left behind by the big mining companies. The authorities left it to the surviving miners and their relatives to extract the bodies as the rescue mission was deemed too dangerous.
Let us not forget that Nelson Mandela was not always an old man with an endearing smile and the serenity of forgiveness in his eyes. He was also once an angry youth, a professional outraged at the injustices of his time, an activist with fire in his heart. It is now for us to carry the flame forward in honour of those whose greatness died before it could be given credence, and even more importantly in celebration of the greatness, bursting to unfold, in each person, no matter how poor or vulnerable or marginalized or forgotten. Only then can we hope to recover our lost innocence.