Applied Psychology

Child abuse in South Africa: Helping and healing the voiceless

May 26, 2020 | By Signpost
Child abuse in South Africa: Helping and healing the voiceless

Many cases of child abuse in South Africa don’t even get reported. Comprehensive measures are needed to root out abuse and protect children from harm.

Key takeaways:

  • Reported child abuse cases in South Africa are alarming enough; but what about all the ones that don’t get reported?
  • There are many reasons children might choose not to report cases, such as fear of the abuser, and lack of understanding of what is being done to them. Furthermore, child abuse generally takes place away from the public eye.
  • Teachers need to be trained to recognise signs of child abuse, and crisis intervention should be implemented in schools where child abuse is suspected or discovered.

While child abuse is widespread, crisis intervention, sadly, continues to remain virtually non-existent in most South African schools – a state of play that will have drastic implications for the futures of today’s learners.

The under-reporting of child abuse in the South Africa

South Africa’s stats on reported child abuse cases are alarming as it is. Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch has seen an increase in the numbers and severity of child abuse and neglect cases reported to the facility over the last 25 years.

The Optimus National Prevalence Study estimated that 42% of South Africa’s children have experienced some form of ill-treatment and 82% have either experienced or witnessed some form of victimisation.

But what adds to the concern is the amount of cases that go unreported. The 2016 Optimus National Prevalence Study showed that one in three boys and girls have experienced sexual abuse, yet only one-third of them ask for help (with boys being less likely to do so).

There are a number of reasons why children might not report a case of child abuse, or why adults may fail to identify it.

  • Child abuse usually occurs in places that are hidden from the public eye, such as the home.
  • It may take the form of something that society considers acceptable, such as discipline. But in many cases the line between discipline and child abuse is crossed.
  • Children may internalise what is being done to them, and be afraid to speak out, especially if the abuse is being perpetrated by someone they know.
  • The abuser may manipulate the child psychologically, convincing them that no one will listen to them or that they’ll get in trouble if they tell anyone.

Being alert to the signs of child abuse

Since children have difficulty reporting cases of child abuse, the onus lies mainly on adults to report their suspicions.

Child abuse can manifest in different ways, whether it be physical, sexual, psychological, or in the form of neglect. Educating teachers to recognise signs of these different forms of child abuse should be part of a comprehensive training program instituted by schools.

According to westerncape.gov, these are some of the signs adults should look out for:

  • Physical abuse: unexplained burns, cuts or bruises, bite marks, anti-social behaviour, fear of adults, suicide attempts
  • Emotional abuse: depression, hostility of stress, apathy, lack of centration, eating disorders, suicide attempts
  • Sexual abuse: fear of a certain family member, inappropriate knowledge or interest of sexual acts or sexual terminology, depression and suicide attempts, self-mutilating behaviour, drastic changes in appetite, over compliance or excessive aggression
  • Neglect: dirty or unbathed, unsuitable clothing for weather, extreme hunger, unattended medical, dental or educational needs
Childline has a 24-hour free helpline for reporting suspicion of child abuse: 0800 055 555.

Protecting children

In a speech during Child Protection Week in 2019, Premier Alan Winde said that child protection should be a concern every day of the year, not just for one week. Government needs to implement programmes that approach the issue with the seriousness it deserves, with a focus on making communities safer, tackling substance abuse, and developing education programmes.

Many locally based psychology professionals favour crisis intervention in schools when abuse of a pupil is suspected or discovered. Though there are certain self- and donor-funded organisations – some of which work closely with local schools – dedicated to providing trauma counselling and relief to victims and their families; a shortage of school psychologists coupled with a lack of funding and the insufficient training of educators is largely to blame for the absence of crisis intervention in our schools.

If you feel compelled to join the fight against child abuse in our country, you could should consider studying psychology at SACAP. Every new trained psychologist boosts manpower and helps alleviate some of the burden on resources. SACAP offers a range of courses that can prepare you for a career in child psychology, including part-time- full-time and distance-learning. For more information, enquire now.

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