It is clear a lot still needs to be done to improve the lives of our children. Faced with so many challenges, it would be easy for us to lose sight of our children’s plight, writes Chris Jones.
The first Saturday of November has been declared by the government of as National Children’s Day to reflect on the promotion and realisation of the rights of our country’s children. This year, the day is celebrated on 5 November.
In this piece, I specifically focus on the socio-economic rights of and circumstances in which many children in South Africa find themselves. I will also look at specific rights in these respects that are guaranteed in our Bill of Rights included in the Constitution.
According to Katharine Hall, senior researcher at the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, there were, in mid-2018, approximately 58 million people living in South Africa, of which 20 million were children under the age of 18. The gender split of our children is equal, and 20% do not live with either of their biological parents.
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The child population grew from 18.1 million in 2002 to 20.5 million in 2020. In Gauteng, for example, the child population has grown by 50 percent since 2002, making it the fastest-growing province in terms of children. The Western Cape also saw an increase, while the Eastern Cape experienced a decline since 2002.
In 2020 there were 2.9 million orphans in South Africa, and in 2019, 26 000 children were living in child-only households.
Income poverty, unemployment, and social grants
Section 27(1)(c) of our Bill of Rights, states that everyone (including children) has the right to have access to “social security, including, if they are unable to support themselves and their dependants, appropriate social assistance”.
Hall points out that in the second half of 2020, 7.3 million children lived in households where no one had any form of income. It was 5.9 million in 2019. The child poverty rate at the upper bound poverty line (R1 268 pm) was 63 percent, while 8 million found themselves below the lower bound poverty line (R840 pm).
Social assistance grants definitely improve the situation in which children find themselves. In March 2022, 12.9 million children received the Child Support Grant (CSG) – a slight drop from the previous year. There is substantial evidence that grants, including the CSG, are being spent on food, education, and basic goods and services.
The Bill of Rights, in Section 27, also provides that everyone has the right to access health care services. In addition, section 28(1)(c) gives children “the right to basic nutrition … [and] basic health care services …”
Hall and Nadine Nannan state that more than two million children live in households where they experience hunger. This is 20% lower than in 2002, when 5.5 million children lived in households in which child hunger was experienced. Under five-year-old mortalities decreased from 81 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2003 to 28 per 1,000 in 2020. The infant mortality rate also decreased to an estimated 21 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2020. Just under four million children travel far (longer than 30 minutes) to reach a primary healthcare facility – this is a significant improvement from 2002 when it was 6.6 million children – and 83.5 percent of children are fully vaccinated in their first year after birth.
Education, Housing and Basic Services
Section 29(1)(a) in our Bill of Rights states that “everyone has the right to a basic education”, and section 29(1)(b) says that “everyone has the right to further education”, and that the state must make such education “progressively available and accessible”.
South Africa has taken giant steps to improve access to education. In 2020, the attendance rate was 97%. Access to preschool facilities also improved – 93% of 5–6-year-old children attend some form of educational institution or care facility. This was double the 2002 level. Unfortunately, this does not lead to improved education outcomes. A third of young people aged 15-24 are unemployed or not in education or training. There has been no improvement in this respect since 2002.
Section 26 of our Bill of Rights provides that “everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing”, and section 28(1)(c) gives children “the right to … shelter”.
According to Hall, in 2020, 57% of children lived in urban areas and 85% in formal housing. About 1.6 million children (or one in ten) lived in backyard dwellings and shacks in informal housing and 4.3 million in overcrowded households. The average household has decreased from 4.5 in 1996 to around 3.5 in 2020.
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Regarding basic services, Section 27(1)(b) says that “everyone has the right to have access to … sufficient … water” and Section 24(a) states that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being”.
Without water and proper sanitation, children face health risks. In 2020, 70 percent of children had piped drinking water at home (up from 60 percent in 2002), and 78% had adequate toilet facilities on site. This is a huge improvement from 46% in 2002. However, 4.4 million children still use unventilated pit latrines, buckets, or inadequate forms of sanitation, while 270 000 children have no sanitation facilities at all.
It is clear a lot still needs to be done to improve the lives of our children. Faced with so many challenges, it would be easy for us to lose sight of our children’s plight.
But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted as Emeritus Professor Linda Richter from the University of the Witwatersrand reminds us: “In a country beset by poverty, inequality, social exclusion and violence, our most important responsibility is to our children and adolescents. We need to identify those who face difficulties early on and try to rectify or ameliorate these problems so that children can continue their life-long journey with strength and resources. It is, therefore, essential that our laws and policies, our services for children and families, our leaders and their decisions, and our everyday interactions with one another help to foster, create and maintain conditions that enable all children to be part of powerful, loving relationships that comfort them in times of adversity, celebrate their strengths and encourage them to thrive”.
Although we still have some way to go, we can, on National Children’s Day, celebrate the progress that has been made regarding certain important socio-economic rights and circumstances of our children.
– Dr Chris Jones is Chief researcher in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology, and also head of the Unit for Moral Leadership at Stellenbosch University.
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