For the sake of our children and youth: Let us build safer and more harmonious post-COVID-19 societies

Children are under siege in South Africa, and we are exposing our glaring failures to them; in schools, and in the homes where they are supposed to find sanctuary and be the safest, adolescent girls of all ages are victims of unspeakable violence.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images

I am writing from a place of anguish as I continue to bear witness to the fate of adolescents and young women in South Africa, indeed, across the globe. It is the fate of young women in South Africa, and around the globe, to which I would like to give voice and flesh. This is about an everyday issue which we must resolve as a human family, but in the spirit of opening a debate, I have more questions than answers.  I am also filled with a sense of unsettled urgency, as there is still so much work to be done to bring us closer to our world of justice and peace.  

In this country, the land of Tutu and Madiba’s birth, and on this continent, the home of greats such as Wangari Maathai, and Gertrude Mongella, it is an affront to the nobility of our ancestors to allow our youngest generations to suffer in the ways they do.

How can we break the vicious circle of untold and unspeakable pain that visit women and children on a daily basis? While the days of the brutal Apartheid regime are thankfully behind us, we are still a nation at war with ourselves; we are plagued by deeply entrenched and festering wounds. And perhaps one of the most visible manifestations of this is our violent and unequal society. Archbishop Tutu once said “children are a wonderful gift. They have an extraordinary capacity to see into the heart of things and to expose sham and humbug for what they are”. And he is absolutely right. 

Children are under siege in South Africa, and we are exposing our glaring failures to them; in schools, and in the homes where they are supposed to find sanctuary and be the safest, adolescent girls of all ages are victims of unspeakable violence. They suffer from bullying and sexual violence at the hands of their male family members, and from fellow students and teachers. 

New alarming figures from South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng province’s Department of Health show that more than 23,000 girls aged under 18 gave birth between April 2020 and March 2021, and of which 954 were aged between 10 and 14. The number of children born to teen mothers in Gauteng province alone has jumped to 60% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Why is there not an outcry over what is in essence, a statutory rape epidemic in this country? It was further revealed that nearly 3000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 have had to take the heart wrenching and life altering decision to terminate their pregnancies. Girls in the metropolis of Johannesburg are not alone. Nearly 13 500 girls in the Western Cape became pregnant in the last year, the majority of them aged between 15 and 19. There are precious lives behind these cold numbers, these are the beautiful faces, brilliant minds, and vibrant voices of our daughters, nieces, sisters, whose childhood and innocence we have left unprotected. 

What is required is for us to build safer, more harmonious societies, ones where we have healthy relationships with those we love. The value of a child’s life, their protection and wellbeing need to be our paramount concern as a society.

And these shocking statistics on teenage pregnancy, do not even paint an accurate, nor comprehensive picture of our disregard for the young people.  So we need to be more honest, and nuanced in analysis of what is really going on. We need higher quality data and desegregated reporting, which captures pregnancy classifications under categories including statutory rape, intimidation, coercion, intra family sexual abuse, and incest. The data must expose these atrocities and guide proper corrective measures to bring an end to the violence against girls and women faced on a daily basis. 

And as many adolescent girls mature into adulthood, often their fate is no less hospitable, women are under attack daily in South Africa. A woman dies at the hands of her intimate partner every eight hours. This translates into three women being killed by their loved ones every single day. And it is reported that more women are killed by their current or former partners here than in any other country in the world. Why has what is so grotesquely abnormal, become normalised to us? In this country, the land of Tutu and Madiba’s birth, and on this continent, the home of greats such as Wangari Maathai, and Gertrude Mongella it is an affront to the nobility of our ancestors to allow our youngest generations to suffer in the ways they do. 

We are passing on our trauma to our next generation. Our children are growing up experiencing hostility, exploitation, and abuse on a daily basis. If not directly first-hand, they are exposed to these traumas second-hand in these social media feeds, and in the news headlines as well. And so, it should come as no surprise that having been socialised in a culture of violence, a natural tendency will be to operate in the world from a place of aggression, physical combativeness and hopelessness. Are we not in need of a therapy of the soul to undertake the monumental task of transformation and untangle ourselves from the wicked webs of our trauma and toxic patriarchy 

We as adults, have to change. We have a constitution, codes, progressive policies and legislation in place to protect women and children. But our failure is one of our human nature. We have to change our mind-sets, our behaviours, our value system, we must reinvent our relationships, and re-engineer the way we relate in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces. A future of justice will only be possible when we see and treat each other with dignity, with the reverence of our physical and mental health and the compassion that comes from recognising and respecting the humanity in one another. None of us must spare the strength, nor courage required to collectively soul search and re-engineer our relationships into ones of respect and equity. 

We are a society at war with itself. We adults are wounded; we are unhealed individuals who come together to form families and communities which are then fractured and broken as well. What is required for us to build safer, more harmonious societies, ones where we have healthy relationships with those we love? How do we ensure those who are custodians of safety and security, actually treasure and cherish those they are meant to protect and adore?  The value of a child’s life, their protection and wellbeing need to be our paramount concern as a society. Peace and Justice has to start and reside in the hearts of each one of us, in the hearts of our families and in the hearts of our communities.

Madam Graça Machel is the Chair of ACCORD’s Board of Trustees.

This article was adapted from a speech presented by Madam Machel at the 11th Desmond Tutu Peace Lecture.

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