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Winning Women: Protecting the child

Dec 10 2017 06:00
Sue Grant-Marshall

Johannesburg - It has always been a crime of assault to hit a child but, until October, if parents were charged, they were able to raise a special defence for such abuse.

Now that has changed.

Professor Ann Skelton, who was in March this year made one of an 18-member UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, says the need to protect children is particularly important in the context of the high levels of child abuse and violence in South Africa.

“There is violence against children in homes, at school, everywhere,” says Skelton.

“In our Constitution, we have one of the most comprehensive child rights sections in the world, but our care and protection system is overloaded. Children’s rights organisations are inadequately funded and social workers struggle with their caseloads.”

A few years ago, a World Health Organisation bulletin revealed that child homicide in South Africa was more than double the world average.

“We are literally killing our children.”

Skelton mentions a recent large-scale, community-based study conducted in Mpumalanga and the Western Cape.

High levels of emotional abuse (76.2%) and physical abuse (58.6%) were reported by children.

Another similar study in the Eastern Cape found that 89.3% of young women and 94.4% of young men said they had experienced harsh physical punishment by their parents or caregivers before they had reached the age of 18.

“The recent judgment that calls for an end to corporal punishment in the home is only the beginning.

"As a society we need to reflect on the cause of all this violence. How are we going to stop this vicious cycle?” asks Skelton.

She says she understands that the new ruling will leave some people feeling disempowered, “but if we teach our children that violence solves problems, then how will they learn anything different?”

LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Workplace tip: Be measured and strategic, however angry some of your work might make you.

Mentor: Several - and some have been younger than me.

Favourite book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

What inspires you: Making a contribution to change.

Wow! moment: Deciding to defend, not prosecute, juveniles.

Skelton began her working life as a prosecutor in the then Juvenile Court in 1986, when children as young as seven could be held in prison.

Whipping was a possible sentence.

“I soon realised that I wanted to defend them instead.”

The lawyer, who started working on children’s rights in the apartheid years, didn’t have great expectations of dramatic changes back then.

But her hard work in promoting children’s rights had not gone unnoticed.

With the advent of democracy, she became a member of the committee that drafted the Children’s Act of 2005.

And she chaired the committee that drafted the Child Justice Act of 2008.

It was in the latter year that she became director of Pretoria University’s Centre for Child Law in the Faculty of Law.

“I’m primarily a law practitioner, not an academic – I worked for Lawyers for Human Rights for many years,” she says.

When she got to Pretoria, she suggested that they “start doing litigation on children’s rights because nobody else is doing it and it’s about time someone did”.

She established litigation work at the Centre for Child Law and argued many of the cases herself over many years on children’s rights issues, including 10 in the Constitutional Court.

One of those cases that stands out for Skelton concerns the care of children when their mothers are imprisoned.

“There were stories of mothers going to court, leaving their children behind, and then never returning home. The courts didn’t ask what would happen to them.”

After Skelton had argued her case, courts had to take that into consideration, “and, if at all possible, to impose a non-custodial sentence”.

Her arguments and her case attracted international, as well as local, attention.

Gently spoken Skelton, with her ready laugh and humanity, received one of the top awards in her field in 2012.

Children around the world were given several nominees’ names for the World Children’s Prize.

They were told about the candidates’ work and approximately 2.4 million voted, with Skelton winning the award.

She will have been director at the Centre for Child Law for a decade when she hands over the baton next year to her deputy director.

“I have so much to do in other areas,” says Skelton, who was appointed to the Unesco Chair in Education Law in Africa in 2013. That position alone takes up masses of her time.

The happily married mother of two grown-up sons praises her husband for his continuous support of her.

In spite of her arduous work, she doesn’t get tired or burnt out. “I get energy from my work. I want to do more and try harder.”

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