There is a War on Children in our Country

The protection and safeguarding of children is key to ensuring that children live safely in our country. While we don't have a shortage of laws and policies to do so, we find ourselves faced with horrific cases of child abuse, rape and sexual exploitation of teenage boys and girls, trafficking, mutilation and many more terrible things being done to children.

This year started on such a horrifying note, following the circulation of news about a child trafficker and rapist in Johannesburg. It has been a series of shocking revelations since the beginning of the trial where the accused, Gerhard Ackerman has been charged with over 700 crimes related to child sexual abuse.

The trial exposed chilling details of a child sex-ring, trafficking,grooming and messages describing the child victims and sexual acts they were forced to perform. We also watched as Ackerman expressed no remorse for his actions, indicating that our justice system has created a culture of no accountability amongst perpetrators.

It is not at all surprising that a senior advocate was implicated in the case. Paul Kennedy’s involvement and the role that he played to finance some of the activities in the sex-ring are an example of how power is abused in South Africa. His decision to unalive himself should be seen as an admission of guilt.

Every quarter we hear from the ministry of police about one too many children being killed and that has become a norm. As a feminist organisation committed to creating a safe and free society for all, we have been up in arms raising awareness and responding to the high rates of violence against vulnerable groups, however the Ackerman case has left us feeling discouraged because it shows that there is more to the problem that meets the eye. It has been a painful reality check for the country as a whole about the state of children as they are preyed on, groomed, and violated, which has harmful impacts on their wellbeing.

While girls and young women are disproportionately affected by violence and abuse, we cannot neglect the impact that this scourge has on male children. Ackerman, through his multiple heinous crimes has demonstrated how easy it is for boys to find themselves in abusive dynamics as they are often left behind in conversations and campaigns about abuse.

Setting up and following good safeguarding policies and procedures means children are safe from adults and other children who might pose a risk. Schools should have safeguarding policies in place and programmes like the Soul Buddyz program become good supporting tools to ensure the empowerment of children and parents in knowing how to handle and/or prevent children from being targeted and harmed.

It is our collective responsibility to protect the vulnerability of all children. We don’t really know what goes on in the minds of people like Ackerman, but we do know that with comprehensive sexuality education, children and youth can be empowered with information about what behaviour is acceptable or not. Hence it is important that now more than ever, we push harder to ensure that our homes, schools,clinics/hospitals, churches and recreation areas, as well as the online spaces that children and young people occupy are safe enough for them and provide affirming sexual and reproductive health information.

We should also take this opportunity to reflect on how sexual abuse and trafficking often take place under the guise of sex work. Given the nature of Ackerman’s crimes, one might make the mistake of comparing these acts to those of sex workers, which will only cause more harm to everyone concerned. We are confident that sex work decriminalisation will play a pivotal role in ensuring the safety of those who are vulnerable to sex related crimes.

Whilst rapists and murderers roam free all children are at risk of experiencing life changing traumas. We welcome Judge Mahomed’s verdict in the case and are waiting with bated breath to hear if the punishment will fit the crime. With the low prosecution rates that we often see in cases of violence and abuse, this judgment makes us hopeful that we will start to see our justice system efficiently addressing the scourge of violence in the country.

The duty to protect falls on all institutions including families and as parents we are the ones who need to ensure first hand that we create safe spaces for our children and that any violation that happens we are able to follow up and hold responsible parties accountable.

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