By Jessie Taylor


Violence against children remains a significant challenge facing South Africa. Despite extensive efforts to reduce violence against children, the legacy of violence and inequality in the country make curbing the scourge a complex endeavour.


Vulnerable to violence

South Africa’s levels of poverty and unemployment create risk for many children, making them vulnerable to domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

One study estimates that about 42% of children had experienced some form of maltreatment (whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect). Even school environments are not all safe spaces for children – the 2012 National School Violence Study found that 13% of learners had been bullied.

According to UNICEF, children are affected by many social issues in South Africa that exacerbate violence – children are orphaned through HIV, there is a large refugee population, and there are high levels of gender-based violence in the country.

In addition, high poverty levels increase the likelihood that children will experience maltreatment – lack of housing, access to transportation, and substance abuse have all been linked to child neglect cases.

Children’s rights are a cornerstone of South Africa’s democracy. These rights are enshrined in the Constitution and protected by the Children’s Act. This Act advocates for children’s rights to essential services, including shelter, protection, maintenance, education, social security, and parenting.     


A robust social care system

To protect these rights, South Africa relies on a child protection policy that aims to create social justice by addressing poverty and inequality, accompanied by a legislative and judicial approach that aims to shield children from abuse and maltreatment.

South Africa spends more on social assistance than most other countries, according to a World Bank review. The report puts the social grant spend at around 3.3% of South Africa’s GDP.

The World Bank found that the social grants were by far the largest facet of South Africa’s social protection system, with the South African Social Security Agency paying out almost 18 million grants. This means that one in every three South Africans directly benefits from a social grant, including child support grants. In addition, more than nine million learners have been reached through the national school nutrition programme. 

This indicates a robust system of social assistance programmes, which are targeted and support a large number of indigent citizens.

But social programmes need to be bolstered by a robust judicial system. This includes various legislative measures such as Section 28 of the Bill of Rights, the Child Care Act (which ensures maintenance), and updates in the Children’s Amendment Bill; the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 (preventing child labour); the Domestic Violence Act; and the Films and Publications Act (protection against exploitation in child pornography).

Another protective measure in place is the National Child Protection Register. This register lists those unsuitable to work with children and protects children from culprits of abuse. It also helps the Department of Social Development to identify communities that need awareness and prevention programmes. The register includes names of people guilty of crimes against children and those found not guilty but declared by the court to be unsuitable to work with children. The Child Protection Register is a crucial part of the implementation of the Children’s Act. 

While South African children face high levels of violence, there are ways to create a safer society. This requires a whole of society approach, in which focused policy, advocacy and intervention are central.


The extent of violence against children in South Africa

Statistics on violence against children in South Africa are staggering, with studies painting a picture of alarmingly high numbers. The following reflects the extent of violence against children in South Africa:

  • One in four children experiences some form of maltreatment during their childhood
  • Almost 20% of adolescents report some form of sexual abuse over their lifetime.
  • The child homicide rate in South Africa is twice as high as the global estimate
  • According to the 2019/2020 Annual Crime Statistics report, more than 24 000 children were sexually assaulted.
  • Nearly 500 fatal child abuse cases are reported yearly in South Africa.


How does South Africa measure up?

According to the annual Kids Rights Index developed by non-governmental organization KidsRight, South Africa scored 97th out of 182 countries.  The index is the only annual global ranking on how countries worldwide are adhering to children’s rights. The report measures 20 indicators across five categories such as healthcare, protection and education.

The highest-scoring country was Iceland, with a score of 0.966.

South Africa scored an overall mark of 0,723. The country’s highest score was in the child’s right environment category – which measures discrimination against children and enabling legislation – where the country placed 63rd. However, South Africa scored lowest in the life ranking (the measurement of child mortality and life expectancy) with a placement of 133.



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