Child protection is a feminist issue (and not because we’re the mothers!)

This year Child Protection Week/Month[1] takes place within a global context of heightened awareness of the extent and long-term negative costs (financial and other[2]) of violence against children. And violence against children is something we should be paying special attention to in South Africa, given our very high rates.

  • According to the World Health Organisation, South Africa’s child homicide rate is more than double the global average;
  • In the 2013/14 year, 846 children were fatally assaulted and a further 869 were the subjects of attempted murder; and another 11,104 children reported assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm — that’s 12,819 assaults perpetrated against children in one year, at a rate of more than 35 a day, or nearly 1.5 every hour;[3]
  • In the same period, 22,781 police reports of child sexual abuse were recorded — that’s a rate of more than 62 a day, and constituted 44% of all reported rape cases;[4]
  • Corporal punishment is still legal in the home, used by over 50% of parents (with the age of highest risk of being hit at all being 3 years and of being hit with an implements being 4 years);[5]
  • Although illegal, corporal punishment is still widely used in schools: the 2012 study on violence in South Africa schools carried out by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) found that seven out of ten primary school learners, and almost half of secondary school learners reported that they were physically beaten, spanked or caned when they had done something wrong at school.[6]

One of Rape Crisis’s peer educators who challenge rape culture and assist rape survivors to promote the safety of children in their schools.

But why is this a feminist issue? Doesn’t that kind of argument reinforce the notion that the nitty-gritty of child-care is the province of mothers?

I think gender-based violence is rooted in the way we raise our children. In the hierarchy that constitutes the stereotypical family, the children are at the bottom of the heap. It is in the way we think about and treat our children that we sow the seeds for the adults they will become. We teach them that bigger people are more powerful and that men are the biggest people, and hence the most powerful. We teach them that it’s OK to hurt someone who is smaller and weaker, and that lashing out is an appropriate response to disagreements and conflicts of opinion. And we do this by demonstrating it to our children every day, in our own behaviour and interactions.

Of course, there are many, many families (in the broadest sense of that word) where children grow up seeing adults who use reason and debate to resolve differences, and who are self-disciplined and protective of the rights of others.

But, for a significant number of our children, such parents are rare and the contexts into which they are born and raised reinforce social constructions of masculinity as dominant and in control and femininity as subservient and indecisive.

The so-called defence of reasonable chastisement is part of the problem. This is the defence within our common law available to parents or caregivers who assault their children (although this right of parents has been argued against on the grounds that it violates our Constitution and Children’s Act, and the ratification of international child and human rights treaties).

While legal assault in the form of corporal punishment is perpetrated against both boys and girls (i.e. make it arguably not a women’s rights issue), children living in homes where they are corporally punished learn the lessons that many will play out in the adult lives. Boys who are corporally punished are more likely to become abusive partners and girls more likely to seek re-victimisation within their intimate relationships. The confusion of love and pain (“I’m only doing this because I love you” and “This hurts me more than it hurts you”) is hard to get past for many who have grown up where casual violence is the norm.

The socialisation of children lies at the root of gender-based violence through the constructs of masculinity and femininity which they see around them, in the home and outside of it and the lessons they are taught about power and control (and who has it and why). This is about how boys and girls are raised.

In this Child Protection Month, along with the fanfare and events and back-slapping that accompanies such commemorations, let’s remember that the best way to protect children is to prevent abuse, neglect and an upbringing characterised by interpersonal violence as the default option whenever something is not to our liking, and that masculinity is more prized than femininity.

Because if we can give most children a happy childhood in which they are respected, listened to, and taught by example how to manage themselves and their interpersonal relationships in a way that respects the value and dignity of everyone, then we will have gone a long way to achieving a society comprised of adults who appreciate diversity, respond to differences and disagreements without resorting to violence and who understand that our human value is not determined by our gender.

And that’s why child protection is a feminist issue.

Carol Bower

Carol Bower has worked to end violence against women and children for almost all of her professional life. She now lives in the middle of nowhere fulfilling the ageing hippy dream and making as much trouble as she can. She is currently working with Sonke Gender Justice on improving attitudes towards and the practice of parenting as a key strategy for preventing the sexual and physical abuse of children. Carol is a previous director of Rape Crisis.

[1] Since 1997, the last week of May each year and the whole of June are dedicated to child protection in South Africa. This week, Child Protection Week lasts from 31st May to 7th June.

[2] Economists estimate the cost of child assault, not just from the obvious costs of increased child welfare interventions, but also from the well-documented loss of future earnings from an assaulted child. The total global cost reaches an astounding $3.5-trillion annually. For South Africa, the cost is estimated at $82-billion (see

[3] South African Police Services National Crime Statistics.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dawes A, Kafaar Z, de Sas Kropiwnicki Z.O, Pather R, and Richter L. 2004. Partner Violence, Attitudes to Child Discipline & Use of Corporal Punishment: A South African National Survey. Cape Town, Child Youth & Family Development, Human Sciences Research Council.

[6] Burton P. 2012. Snapshot: results of the CJCP National Schools Violence Study. Cape Town: CJCP

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About rapecrisisblog

We have a vision of a South Africa in which rape survivors suffer no secondary trauma, and are supported throughout their interaction with the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Our mission is to promote an end to violence against women, specifically rape, and to assist women to achieve their right to live free from violence. Rape Crisis Cape Town seeks to achieve its mission through counselling and training of women, thereby reducing the trauma experienced by rape survivors, and encouraging reporting of rape and the conviction of rapists.

One thought on “Child protection is a feminist issue (and not because we’re the mothers!)

  1. Pingback: Child protection is a feminist issue (and not because we’re the mothers!) | Rape Crisis

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