Protecting and promoting children’s rights in SA schools

It is commendable that, despite being a developing country, South Africa records relatively high levels of school enrolment and attendance. The University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute reports that 11.3 million (98%) of South African children aged seven to 17 attended some form of educational facility in 2018.

“However, there is a dark side to these statistics, notably the less-than-ideal treatment of schoolchildren and children at large. There exists blatant violation of children’s rights,” says Professor Thenjiwe Meyiwa, Vice-Principal: Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation.

“It is from the violation of children’s rights that, in recent years, Amnesty International has intensified its call for South African schools to sign up as Human Rights Friendly Schools,” she says. “Amnesty International implores schools that sign up for this status to implement the Human Rights Friendly Schools approach, with the involvement of the whole community and often with support from Amnesty International.”

These schools have set aims, among which are to:

  • Empower young people and promote the active participation of all members of the school community in integrating human rights values and principles into all areas of school life, and
  • Enable young people to know their human rights and responsibilities and to become inspired to protect and defend their rights and the rights of others, based on values such as equality, dignity, respect, non-discrimination and participation.

Professor Thenjiwe Meyiwa

Meyiwa hosted the Fifth Asikhulume Roundtable series discussion on 28 March 2022 with the theme, “Promoting school children’s rights and identities: opportunities and challenges for social cohesion”, highlighting concerted efforts to protect children’s rights.

Involvement of all sectors of society needed

Echoing Amnesty International principles, one of the panellists, Dr Antoinette Basson, Head of the Youth Research Unit at Unisa’s Bureau of Market Research, emphasised the importance of upholding children’s and young people’s rights. She submitted that “all sectors of society need to reflect and introspect on what is being done and what is not being done to protect children’s rights”.

As many as 50% of children interviewed by researchers in her unit had confirmed they had been exposed to inappropriate sexual images but only a small number had received support, she said. More than a third of children who had been bullied themselves were now bullying others. Substance abuse, particularly the abuse of alcohol, was widespread, with high stress levels among school-going children being a contributing factor.

“It is clear that children’s rights to protection are being neglected,” said Basson, adding that, although the picture was bleak, there were several opportunities to strengthen children’s rights. “We can work together and strengthen the system, promote the participation of children – the child’s voice – and facilitate children’s rights education in South Africa. We need more research on issues impacting children and to apply the findings, and we should also increase multisectoral support for children,” argued Basson.

Panellists from left: Dr Antoinette Basson, Prof. Oupa Makola and Zulaikha Lali Patel

Holistic, inclusive support for children

Her two fellow roundtable panellists, Professor Oupa Makola of the Central University of Technology (CUT) and Zulaikha Lali Patel, an anti-racism and social justice activist, also highlighted the importance of support for children, including a holistic, inclusive approach to promoting and protecting their rights, as well as managing positive discipline.

While more research is still needed on the state of “positive discipline” at schools across South Africa, indications are that the concept is often misunderstood and misapplied. Positive discipline, which is discipline without the use of fear or force, and which respects the rights and dignity of children, was one of the main discussion points at this Asikhulume Roundtable.

The issue of positive discipline was unambiguously raised by Makola, a counselling and child psychologist and Welkom Campus Director of CUT. Outlining the findings of a CUT study at six Mpumalanga schools, he said there was a need for educators, school governing bodies, parents and learners themselves to be better informed about positive discipline.

“Our study suggests positive discipline is not effectively applied at South African schools,” Makola said, noting the high prevalence of truancy, substance abuse, bullying and other anti-social behaviour at schools.

He attributed the apparent failure of positive discipline at schools to low or inconsistent levels of knowledge about it, as well as problems with its implementation. Cause for concern, said Makola, was that some school principals in the CUT study had not been able to define the concept of positive discipline.

Asked what problems schools encountered in implementing positive discipline, some participants in the study said there was too much emphasis on learners’ rights and too little on their corresponding responsibilities, or on the rights of educators. Others referred to the “cut-and-paste approach” used, based on imported Western ideas but without these being customised to local contexts and African principles.

What was needed, said Makola, was a socially cohesive approach towards positive discipline, underpinned by multi-stakeholder engagement that includes parents and learners through vibrant learner councils.

The third member of the panel embodies the ideal of youth activism and participation in children’s rights. Patel, was only 13 years old when she coordinated protests against the anti-girl and anti-black hair regulations at the Pretoria High School for Girls.

Arguably the most important factor in protecting the rights of children is to create an inclusive schools culture that is anti-racist, anti-queerphobia, anti-xenophobic and anti-gender discrimination, she said.

* Submitted by the Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation Portfolio

Publish date: 2022/04/19