The Child Journeys On

Much of my work at Legal Aid South Africa falls within the field of children’s rights. Section 28 of South Africa’s Bill of Rights explicitly outlines a list of rights granted to children. Paired with other provisions in the Constitution, the rights of children are quite expansive. They include guarantees of basic health care and housing and nutrition, and to be free from exploitative labour and armed conflict, among others.

Like the gap between rights and realities expressed in my earlier post regarding the LGBT community however, there is also a large gap between the rights provided to children in the constitution and the reality of children’s lived experiences in South Africa. Children, being some of society’s most vulnerable peoples, often experience overlapping grounds of inequality – based on their status as children, and the discrimination they may experience by virtue of their colour, race, ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, etc. Due to their age and inherent inabilities, they often have little agency to overcome inequality and neglect and require state support to rise above their marginalization.

On Monday, I attended a roundtable discussion involving numerous NGOs and legal interest groups to discuss how Legal Aid can better improve access to legal services for children. As I listened to the discussion, the statistics were staggering. Forced sex of minors is rampant (the statistic quoted was that upwards of 50% of South African children are victims) and there are upwards of two million children that require foster care. In light of these disparities, the constitutional framework provides a difficult mandate to fulfill.

In terms of my own work at Legal Aid, I have been working on two files concerning children – one is an effort to minimize the availability of a detrimental substance in shoe glue, which is used regularly by street children in South Africa and has many harmful side-effects, and the other is a legal reform project to amend the laws on child support and maintenance because the current system is often abused by non-payors, placing many single-parent families in extreme poverty.

I think it’s appropriate to leave this blog post with a poem written by Ingrid Jonker. She was an Afrikaner who wrote the following poem during apartheid. It was read aloud by former President Nelson Mandela in his inaugural State of the Nation address to Parliament in May 1994, where he stated that “… in this glorious vision, she instructs that our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child”.

The child that died at Nyanga
The child is not dead
The child lifts his fist against his mother
Who shouts Africa! Shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the shanty-towns for the cordoned heart
The child lifts his fist against his father
In the march of the generations
Who are shouting Afrika! Shout the breath
Of righteousness and blood
In the streets of his embattled pride
The child is not dead
Not at Langa nor at Nyanga
Nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
Nor at the police station in Philippi
Where he lies with a bullet through his head
The child is the shadow of the soldiers
On guard with their rifles saracens and batons
The child is present at all assemblies and legislation
The child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
This child who just longed to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
The child grown into a man treks on through all Africa
The child grown into a giant journeys over the whole world
Carrying no pass