A new briefing paper jointly launched today by ECPAT International and the Youth Research Unit of the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa, warns that high levels of violence, inequality and poverty are leaving South African children at considerable risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation.
The paper draws on crucial information from The Landscape of Sexual Exploitation of Children in South Africa — a research collaboration led by ECPAT to describe the context for sexual exploitation of children in South Africa — and information collated from the Out of the Shadows Index on the South African government’s response to fighting sexual exploitation of children (ranked 16 out of 60). Even though South Africa has knowledgeable welfare support workers and a strong legal framework to protect children from sexual exploitation, serious limitations still exist. The paper identifies several urgent points of action.
South Africa has ratified all the major international conventions and frameworks, and in most cases has comprehensive national laws to protect children from sexual exploitation. In addition, several national plans are in place to implement the country’s policy for the protection of children. However, professionals interviewed for the ECPAT paper said the issue is not a lack of policies and laws, but gaps in funding, weak monitoring and enforcement, and mediocre coordination by government departments to implement them.
“We have enough [policies and legislation], if we can’t even meet the requirements of what we have available, what will be the point of developing more policies and legislation?” says one research participant from KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa has made huge progress to reverse structural inequalities in recent years, but is still considered to have one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. Poverty is highest amongst children, and welfare professional interviewed in ECPAT’s report confirmed that it is often associated with sexual exploitation.
The briefing paper also highlights that violence continues to be widely experienced by South African children in their schools, families, and communities. In response to the recent increase of reports on school-based violence, the YRU has conducted an explorative research study in secondary schools in Gauteng, investigating school-based violence. The results of the study will be released early 2020. School-based violence – including instances of corporal punishment by staff – remains a concern, and discourages abused and exploited children from seeking help. Such violence can even create circumstances for sexual exploitation to flourish. School-based behaviour-change programmes – like promoting alternatives to corporal punishment or peer leadership projects challenging gender-based violence or harassment – are urgently needed to address young people’s attitudes towards violence and abuse.
“The data shows that high levels of sexual violence continue in South Africa. The message this sends must be counteracted by building positive and supportive environments in schools or violence will continue to pass from generation to generation.”
— Mark Kavenagh, Head of Research and Policy at ECPAT International
Inconsistencies and loopholes exist through numerous South African laws regulating marriage, including exceptions which allow marriages of children below 18 to occur. The tribal custom of Ukuthwala, bride kidnapping, is practiced in some regions and is considered a risk factor for sexual exploitation. It has been noted by experts to increasingly involve kidnapping, rape and forced marriages. Despite a 2015 draft bill prohibiting forced and child marriages, as of October 2019 no legislative reform on this issue has occurred.
“South Africa ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and therefore has committed to establishing the minimum age of marriage at 18 years old for both boys and girls with no exceptions.”
— Andrea Varrella, Legal Research Officer at ECPAT International