CEO COLUMN: Fathers of the Revolution

Monday 22 June 2020
This Sunday was Father’s Day, and, like many other families, we have a tradition in our house in which my wife and daughter make me breakfast in bed. However, this Sunday I first had to do a TV interview about child murder.

I work at Save the Children, and this is part of my job. So while my daughter scrambled eggs and made toast, I spoke to a News Presenter about how a 3-year-old girl was recently found wrapped in a bag, in a rubbish pit, stabbed multiple times in the torso. I spoke about how child murder in South Africa has risen by 3% over the past year, from 985 children in 2018 to 1,014 in 2019. 

And then I tried to answer the inevitable question, “Why?”. This is a very big question, that I find difficult to articulate in a neat, media-friendly package. It raises so many emotions, chief among them anger and despair. Why is this one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women and children? How did we get here?

The first place to look is at how we treat our children. To some degree, violence is normalized through physical punishment in the early years, and then escalates. Save the Children and other child-focused NGOs fought hard to have corporal punishment banned in the home, and this was eventually upheld by the Constitutional Court in 2019. But we still have a long way to go before this practise is stopped. 

Approximately 60% of South African parents use physical punishment in the home, with a third using severe forms. The most common age for smacking is 3-year-olds, and the most common age for beating with an object is 4-year-olds. This means that the most vulnerable children, those least accountable for their actions, are most likely to be violated.

Physical punishment is where children first learn about violence, but they also face routine violence in their schools and communities, often by the very people entrusted to protect and care for them. This experience early in life often persists through the child’s development, and has severe implications.

So, what can we do about it? South Africa has strong laws to protect children, but we need better enforcement. We also need better data to inform child-focused plans and budgeting. And we need government to invest in violence prevention work done by civil society. Too many NGOs providing this type of assistance are being forced to close because of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, yet they are at the heart of our collective response to violence against children. 

But the greatest responsibility sits with fathers. We can choose to take a stand by being better, more understanding parents. We can choose positive parenting over physical violence. But like any Revolution, it takes immense courage and resilience to break an inter-generational cycle of violence. It takes the strongest of men – because this struggle is internal.

As I wrapped up my early morning TV interview, I heard my daughter excitedly putting the finishing touches to my breakfast. So, I got back in bed, and when I blew out my candle (another family tradition) I thought of that girl on the rubbish pit and the terror she must have felt in her final minutes. And I wished, more than anything, for this to stop. And the best thing that I can do, that all of us men can do, is to be a good father. Then, perhaps, we will deserve our breakfast in bed.

By Steve Miller, CEO of Save the Children South Africa

About: Save the Children believes every child deserves a future. In South Africa and around the world, we give children a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. We do whatever it takes for children – every day and in times of crisis – transforming their lives and the future we share.
Note to the Editor: If children are affected, we’ve got something to say. Our team of experts are available for comments, interviews and information.