Three in four children regularly suffer violence committed by parents and guardians. In Africa, too, many children become victims of domestic violence. South Africa has now outlawed corporal punishment in the home.
Dr. Zara'u, who works in a clinic in Nigeria's Kano state, regularly has to deal with cases of domestic violence. Some are particularly severe. Talking to DW, he mentions a girl that was mistreated: "The stepmother used a hot metal spoon on the body of the small girl. She burnt as many as six parts of the girl's body, including her genitals. Due to the damage done by the hot stuff, the girl is now finding it difficult to even urinate."
After treatment, Dr. Zara'u will report the case to police, "because that is what the law says." Time and again, Kano authorities record such cases of domestic violence.
Globally, three in four children regularly suffer violence committed by parents and legal guardians, according to a new UNICEF report. These statistics include psychological violence, for example yelling at or berating children. Six in ten children are regularly victims of corporal punishment carried out by their parents or guardians.
Parents convinced they're right
Not all cases are as severe as the mistreatment of the little girl in Kano. Often, well-meaning parents simply intended to prevent their children from misbehaving, convinced they're doing the right thing, said Duduzile Skhosana, a child protection project coordinator at Save the Children South Africa.
"African communities grew up in this violent upbringing to a point where we have normalized it, we have made it our culture," she explained. "[But] it is not part of African culture to hit a child."
Laws are not enough
Joined by other organizations, Save the Children is pushing to close legal loopholes that can allow children to be subjected to mental and physical mistreatment. In October, a South African court ruled that corporal punishment in the home was against the law.
Prior to the ruling, parents could use the "reasonable chastisement" defense to avoid prosecution. This stipulation, however, was not in line with the constitution, the court ruled.
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With the decision, South Africa is sending an important signal. According to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment, only 60 countries worldwide have outlawed the practice entirely (including in the home). Only seven of those countries are located in Africa, however. South Africa is among a roughly a dozen states working toward that goal, but where full protection is not yet guaranteed by law.
The law, however, was only one side of the coin, said Mohamadou Moussa, a coordinator for the anti-child-labor federation in Niger. Primary responsibility for children of course fell to the parents, he said, and where they fail, public intervention was required. "Here in Niger, we have many laws whose aim is child protection," Moussa explained. "But they are administered too late, or not at all. We don't even know how many children there are, where they are born, which households they belong to. We do have a child protection ministry. The government, however, is poorly organized."
Addressing the parents
Offering alternatives was at least as important as a ban on corporal punishment, said Save the Children South Africa's Skhosana. She recommends working with positive incentives — rewarding instead of punishing. In order to bring about this change in values, child protection agencies are increasingly utilizing social media platforms.
The government, for its part, must invest into such positive parenting programs, added Skhosane. Such investment is sure to have economic benefits, she pointed out, because mistreated children were unable to work later in life after suffering physical or mental injuries. In a survey published in April 2017, Save the Children concluded that South Africa lost 240 billion Rand (€14.5 billion, $17 billion) this way, which amounts to 6 percent of the country's GDP.
South Africa's recent court decision is only a first step on the route to a changed perception of violence against children, said Skhosane. Indeed, a Christian organization — Freedom of Religion South Africa — is now going to lodge an appeal against the ruling. It argues that "reasonable and moderate chastisement in love" was not equal to violence and abuse, and that parents had to decide themselves how they wish to educate their children.
Mahaman Kanta and Nasir Zango contributed to this report.