Deadly Silence – Media Election Coverage Confirms Disinterest in the Welfare of Children

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“Investing in the health and wellbeing of the children of South Africa is an investment in the future development of our country.”
SA Medical Research Council, 2003

For the past three weeks, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has produced weekly reports commenting on media’s election coverage. The last report, focusing on women, built on the prior report’s analysis of coverage on poverty and service delivery versus campaigning and political conflict. This report again builds on the findings of these two reports, and addresses media’s election coverage around the topic of children.

Children are an important group of South African society, and form a large proportion of South Africa’s population. They are the most vulnerable members of our society, and represent the future potential of South Africa. Children are addressed in their own section of South Africa’s Bill of Rights (Chapter 2, Section 28 of the Constitution), and the Children’s Act (2005) specifically addresses the welfare of children, and clearly states that the “State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil those rights [as set out in the constitution]”, as “protection of children’s rights leads to a corresponding improvement in the lives of other sections of the community because it is neither desirable nor possible to protect children’s rights in isolation from their families and communities”.

Unfortunately, children in South Africa face huge challenges in living safe, healthy and carefree lives, not to mention in surviving to adulthood.

For these reasons, children are deserving of significant attention and consideration by government, political parties and media. However, children as a direct topic of media’s election coverage or as an indirect subject through coverage of related topics, have been an almost non-existent feature to date.

This report addresses the results of media monitoring conducted from March 10, 2009 until April 14, 2009.

MMA Elections 2009 Topic Coverage Breakdown
– Top 15 listed in order of % of coverage, and then Children.

Topics Description Avg %
42 IEC/Election Logistics 18.5%
49 Party Politics 15.0%
37 Political Party Campaigning (last resort only) 13.2%
8 Justice System 8.4%
48 Party Manifestos 6.4%
50 Political Violence & Intimidation 5.5%
15 Rates & Services 3.0%
30 Personalities and Profiles 2.3%
6 Corruption 2.2%
10 Provincial and Local Government 2.0%
9 South Africa – National, Including SA Govt & Parliament 1.9%
41 Voter Education & Registration 1.7%
46 Opinion Polls 1.7%
45 Coalitions and Party Co-operation 1.7%
39 Corruption: Government & Party 1.5%

Children

21 Children/Child Abuse 0.1%

The subject of children was placed together with the subject of child abuse as one broader topic due to knowledge gained through MMA’s considerable experience in monitoring media’s general coverage on children. MMA has found reports on or regarding children are infrequent in South African media (not to mention African media in general). When children are the focus of reports, they are most likely to appear in stories around crime, as either victims or perpetrators, and very rarely become the primary focus of reports around public service delivery and poverty. Placing children and child abuse together facilitates measurement and comparison of any child focused items with other subjects forming the main topic of election coverage.

As can be seen from the above table, even with the combining of children and child abuse, this topic doesn’t even make the list of the top 15 topics of media’s election coverage. In fact, it doesn’t even make the top 25 (including a number of topics being apportioned equal percentages). At just 0.1%, children and child abuse makes it into the top 30 of election coverage topics, taking equal place with HIV/Aids, Affirmative Action, disasters, refugees, the war on terror, and the environment.

While indirectly related topics such as human rights, health, crime, education, poverty, and housing received marginally higher attention in general, MMA’s monitoring revealed that consideration for children in these reports was rare and limited in scope.

Surviving childhood in South Africa

According to South African legislation, children are defined as those younger than the age of 18 years old.

For mid-year 2008, Statistics SA estimated that nearly one-third (32%) of South Africans are younger than 15 years. 10.6% of South Africans are 4 years and younger, 10.8% are aged 5 to 9 years, 10.8% are aged 10 to 15 years, and 10.6 % are in the crossover age bracket of 15 to 19 years old.

Health and Safety

The mortality rate for children under the age of 5 is regularly cited as a leading indicator of the level of child health and overall development of countries, and specifically access to health-care services.

The most recent statistics available (2006) for child mortality in South Africa reveal that child mortality rates have returned to those under Apartheid. From 1990 to 2006, the under-five mortality rate rose from 60 to 69 deaths per 1000 live births.  Infants (0-4 years) accounted for the highest percentage of deaths at 10.5%. Geographical and racial inequality also exist, with rural African infants suffering a 40% higher rate of child morbidity (0-1 years) than for urban African infants, and a 500% higher rate than for White infants.

In 2000, the top 5 specific causes of infant deaths (0-4 years) were:

1   HIV/AIDS
2   Low birth weight
3   Diarrhoeal diseases
4   Lower respiratory infections
5   Protein-energy malnutrition

(Under-registration of deaths is thought probable, particularly amongst children and in rural areas, so this could affect the statistics.)

Clearly, the high rates of HIV/Aids amongst pregnant South African women (as noted in the previous weekly report) have a deep impact on the survival rate of infants, with many contracting HIV through their mothers, being infected during pregnancy, the birth process, or through breastfeeding. It is estimated that some 14,000 babies are born HIV positive annually. (For more discussion around this, see the previous weekly report, “Women? What Women?! – Media contributes to the disempowerment of women”). The infant mortality rate is thus also an indicator of whether any programme on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) is having an impact, and it also gives us an indication of the availability, accessibility and quality of health-care provision to HIV-positive babies.

Poor socio-economic conditions are associated with most causes of death of young children. Good health, indeed child survival, relies on access to good nutrition, clean water, and basic sanitation to prevent malnutrition and the spread of infectious diseases.

Also concerning, many children die as a result of abuse and neglect each year. As is well known, South Africa lays claim to some of the highest child abuse statistics in the world. However, accurate data for child abuse cases is not available, as many cases go unreported, and fatalities resulting from child abuse could be under-estimated due to numerous cases not documented or investigated as child abuse.

The top causes of death for older children do change, with the leading causes of death resulting from road traffic accidents (1) and homicide and suicide (2) in the 10-14 year age group (year 2000 statistics).

In 2003, the Medical Research Council (MRC) advised that PMTCT would be the most effective intervention to reduce infant mortality.  MRC also stated that poverty alleviation, as well as environment and development initiatives including access to safe water, sanitation, improved personal hygiene, welfare and comprehensive primary health care, would also make a significant contribution to preventing malnutrition and infectious diseases such as diarrhoea that are important causes of child mortality. The World Health Organisation states that child mortality could be reduced by half if standard primary health care was delivered and interventions such as nurturing mothers and their newborns, feeding of infants and young children, vaccinations, and management of diarrhoea and malaria were implemented.

As MRC also points out, the high mortality associated with road traffic accidents and violence requires dedicated and holistic interventions.

Poverty and Children without Parents

Poverty is clearly a fundamental issue to the health of South Africa’s children. Child poverty was introduced in the previous weekly report regarding women and gender, as there as there are strong correlations between female poverty and child poverty in South Africa.

Under legislation informed by the Constitution and associated Bill of Rights, South African children have a right to State social assistance (grants, specifically the Child Support Grant or CSG) when families are unable to provide for their survival and development needs.

In their analysis of children living in income poverty, the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town writes, “measuring the levels of income poverty is therefore also important as a measure of how many people are in need of social assistance and whether the State is progressively realising the right to social assistance for all people in need.”

As seen in the previous report, the number of children living in income poverty in South Africa is alarmingly high.

Poverty across the general population is considered to be very significant in South Africa, with 48% of households living below the poverty line in 2005. However, child poverty is estimated to be far more extensive than adult poverty, at 65.5% of the child population versus 45.2% of the adult population. This is more than 11 million children.

What is even more disturbing is that there were an estimated 3.9 million (22%) children in 2005 who sometimes, often or always went hungry. For many households where these children live, it is not a simply a case of surviving on one meal a day, but going without a meal one day so that another sibling can eat, as has been reported on in South African press. School feeding schemes are often the only food source to children in extremely poor households.

As with general population and female poverty, child poverty is spread unequally across South Africa, with more child poverty occurring in rural areas and a higher proportion of desperately poor children living in KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape. Poverty is also closely tied with race, with most South African children living in poverty being African.

Thus, poverty amongst children remains substantial despite the expansion of the child support grants (up 14 years of age), which at national level represents a massive transfer into households with poor children. Corresponding with child mortality, the highest rate of poverty is found to be among infants of 0-4 years.

Grants are a major if not the only source of income for those accessing the grant scheme. Studies show that grants are usually spent on essentials such as food, education, and basic goods and services.  Therefore, it is concerning that not all children needing assistance are doing so, with an estimated 16% of all eligible children not accessing Child Support Grants across the country. There have been several problems identified in the implementation of the CSG, including inconsistency across and within provinces, though most could be easily solved. Poverty itself, and living in rural areas, often leads to difficulty in accessing welfare assistance. Under these conditions, knowledge of social services can be poor in addition to being difficult to physically access, and there are many cases where children and their families struggle to obtain the necessary documentation (such as birth certificates and identity documents) for claiming assistance from the Department of Social Services, who administers the SCG.

Being an orphan also sharpens the edge of poverty. The rate of orphanhood for South African children has shown an increase over the years. For 2005, it was estimated that children who had lost both parents increased to 3% from 1% in 1995.

As explored in the previous report, children are more likely to live in female-headed households in South Africa, and these are more likely to be poor. The loss of a mother is then likely to hit children in these households harder, with the loss of the primary care giver and even the primary source/organiser of income. Perhaps it is for this reason that recent concern in South Africa has focused on maternal orphans. The percentage of children who are maternal orphans has risen more rapidly than the percentage of children who are paternal orphans. However, the percentage of children who are paternal orphans remains much higher than for maternal orphans.

Maternal orphans increased to just over 5% of all children in 2005, and above 8% in KwaZulu-Natal. The increase is more startling when looking at children in the 0-4 year age group, who showed an increase in maternal orphanhood by 88% between 1998 and 2005. The high mortality resulting from HIV/Aids among the general population and in particular the female population is cited as a primary reason for the greatly increased numbers of child orphans. Further, Aids increases the likelihood of loosing both parents due to the sexually transmitted nature of HIV. Once one parent is lost to Aids, there is a greater risk of losing the remaining parent.

Grandparents have primarily taken up the role of carers for fostered and orphaned South African children. However, the advent of child-headed households has also been associated with the rise in numbers of orphaned children.

The welfare of orphans, in particular children orphaned by Aids, has been gaining increasing concern and attention. While all children are accorded special rights under Section 28 of the Constitution, and the Children’s Act 2005, orphans require special consideration as they are even more vulnerable to the violation of their rights, particularly those living in child-headed households. The loss of a parent to Aids may exacerbate the grief of any child losing a parent, as significant prejudice and social exclusion are associated with HIV/Aids in South Africa.

Inequality and poverty in the lives of children is not simply limited to the issues of income and hunger. Living conditions are clearly related, and surveys have revealed extensive variations in living conditions. In 2005, an estimated 7.5 million (42%) South African children had to rely on unsafe or distant sources of drinking water. Further, 99% of children without access to drinking water on site were African. In 2007, it was estimated that 11.4% of the population had no access to piped water, with Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo faring worse than the national average.

Inadequate access to water has many implications for the lives of children, including exposure to substantial health risks. As noted above in the discussion on health, intestinal infectious diseases are one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of five years. In addition to this, children without access to piped water can spend large portions of their time fetching water for families, and carrying heavy water containers.

Education

While every child has a right to basic education, as articulated in the Constitution, schools in South Africa are clearly not the institutions of learning and safety that they should be. The skills shortage that has been identified as a considerable constraint on employment creation and economic growth is a strong indication that the education system is not operating to meet the requirements of modern South Africa.  This is primarily due to the quality and type of education received at South African schools and issues around access to education, while the violence and other crime experienced by learners at school further inhibits learning.

Studies reveal both positive and negative progress in education development.

According to a Stats SA general household survey in 2007, over 4 million people aged 7 to 24 were not attending an educational institution, of this 34.6% of people aged 7 to 24 were not attending an educational institution because they had no money for fees, and 13.4% of 13-19 year old girls were not attending because of pregnancy.

Participation has increased however, with the percentage of five-year-olds attending educational institutions increasing from 40.1% in 2002 to 60,4% in 2007, whilst the percentage of learners in the 6-year-age group increased from 70,0% to 87,7%.

Overall attendance rates for the 7 to 15-year-age group remained high between 2006 (97.7%) and 2007 (97.9%), with a slight increase since 2002 (96.3%). Discussion in percentages does, however, mask the fact that a 2% figure for eligible children not attending school translates into potentially 300,000 children not receiving an education.

The participation rate for children aged 4 and 5 (Grade R) has now reached 70%. The matriculation pass rate has increased from 58% in 1994 to 65% in 2007. Though not great figures, this is far better than exhibited by the general population older than 20, with only 23.6% having matriculated from Grade 12. While most who attend tertiary education are older than 18, it is important to note that most young people go to school for 13 years, indicating high school is the highest level of education they receive. In addition to other issues such as cost and availability of places at tertiary institutions, the matriculation rate must also play a part in this.

Pupil-to-teacher ratios have also improved from 43:1 in 1996 to 32:1 in 2006, though this is a national average and does not indicate worse ratios experienced in certain provinces and districts. There is anecdotal evidence that there are rural schools which have more than 60 students per classroom.

Despite the Constitution’s articulation of a right to education, universal free education does not exist, and there is currently only a 2008 commitment of the ruling party to extend free education to 60% of schools. Simply extending free education in the form of covering fees may also not lead to increased participation, as fees are only one part of the cost of attending school. Pupils must also acquire books and uniforms for example.

Though increases in participation have been experienced, literacy is a major problem across the country and amongst current learners. The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy study (2007) placed the performance of South African children after 40 other countries. Almost 80% of learners were found to not develop basic reading skills by the time they reach grade five. Furthermore, the study found that South Africa was behind in introducing more complex reading skills, where earlier introduction has proven to lead to higher achievement.

In terms of access to resources, less than half of children have books in the home. Even more concerning for its impact on reading skills, 60% of South African primary schools did not have a library or classroom libraries.

These figures also hide great inequalities that exist across and within provinces and between rural and urban areas. A study in 2005 found that in the Western Cape, only 5% of grade 6-learners in township schools were able to read at expected levels, and only 2% able to perform at the required level in mathematics. On the other hand, corresponding figures for former model C schools (formerly advantaged and for white students) demonstrated 85% for reading and 63% for mathematics.

Two new curricula introduced since 1994, including Outcomes Based Education (OBE), have proved to be major hurdles in the improvement of school education. Most teachers, particularly those trained 10 to 20 years ago, have not been appropriately or sufficiently trained in the new curriculum and therefore find it very difficult delivering on the expected results in classrooms. The training on the curriculum introduced in 2005 for instance, was found to focus not on how and what to teach, but on terminology.

Furthermore, many learners face difficulties in the learning process itself as the language of instruction is not one in which they are competent. It is the aim of government policy to ensure that learners should be able to learn in their home language. However, logistically it can be difficult to ensure this outcome when schools can have learners with different home-languages from each other, and it is not always easy to find teachers in the area capable of instructing in the home-language to the quality required.

In 1994, South Africa’s new democratic government faced the mammoth task of transforming the education system, which bore the legacy of the Apartheid system of unequal education. The huge disparities created by this system lead to institutions and students who came to be known as historically advantaged or disadvantaged, depending on resources allocated and teaching quality, and the effects continue to impact on schools and communities today. Well-resourced schools remain better resourced than many that were also under-resourced under Apartheid.

While the Education Department receives the largest annual budget allocation, education and participation is impacted by ongoing service delivery problems to many schools and access to appropriate equipment. A 2007 study shows schools in their thousands still do not have access to sanitation facilities, water and electricity, not to mention science laboratories and sports facilities.

These difficulties of learning created around service delivery, teaching standards, language of instruction, and violence in schools have been reported on in the press and sometimes in great detail.

As a sign that issues around education were being recognised in government, education has been going though a major policy review since 2007 to implement ANC resolutions declaring education and health to be major priorities for the transformation of South Africa.

A White Paper (6) released by the Department of Education in 2001 identified key barriers that prevented a large number of children from learning. These included problems in the provision of education itself, socio-economic barriers, violence and crime, HIV/Aids, substance abuse, an inflexible curriculum, language and communication; inaccessible and unsafe built environment, disability, and lack of lack of human resource development.

Media Coverage

Very little can be said in an analysis of media coverage on children during the lead up to elections as almost no coverage of this nature has appeared.

It is possible that media and political parties could argue that until children become adults officially at the age of 18, and thereby become eligible to vote, then significant attention need not be paid to this “topic” of children. Their votes need not be won, and they do not need to be informed of potential choices on the ballot paper.

However, South African children are South African citizens, and their concerns still count. Children are allocated an important place in South Africa’s Constitution, and are due special consideration by government and society. Children are no small segment of South Africa’s population, and are the country’s future. A majority of South African children are suffering under the burden of poverty and the HIV/Aids epidemic. Many of our children are dying preventable deaths. Their concerned parents are also the voting public.

Children also have the right to participate in processes that could affect them, and while they are not able to vote in these elections, children will have to live with the consequences of voting public’s decision. Accordingly, not only do children have a right to have their voices heard on these matters, but media has a special responsibility to ensure that children’s voices are heard.

Under these conditions, media’s attention to children in their election coverage is notable for its absence, and almost unforgivably so. Just as the lack of political party attention to women and gender issues is no excuse for media to disengage on these subjects, there is no justification for children to be ignored in election coverage. Media should be engaging political parties and audiences on the subject of children.

From the above discussion on issues relating to and impacting on children, we should be seeing more items on the following:
– Child poverty and welfare systems to address this;
– The high mortality rates and policies/action proposed to reduce this;
– Child orphans and special support mechanisms and systems for these particularly vulnerable children;
– HIV/Aids – both the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, impact on child health, and impact on the welfare of children orphaned by Aids;
– Violence against children and crime among youth, including in schools, and proposed measures to address this;
– Education and policy/action to further improve participation rates and quality.

Media do report on child-related issues. We do get to hear about abuse of children, the poor quality education and health systems, ‘Aids orphans’, infant deaths and malnutrition. We certainly are informed of how much South African children suffer rather than prosper and succeed. However, if it is possible for media to do this under ordinary conditions, then why cannot these reports be related to the upcoming elections, why cannot these issues be tackled within analyses of political party manifestos and form platforms for engagement with party representatives?

Clearly, it is within media’s capacity to produce these reports, and there have been a few good examples. The City Press provides one particularly commendable article, notable for being an exception and exceptional (19/4/09, p.27). “Just do the Maths”, by Gershwin Chuenyane, proves that it is possible for media to engage around a very important subject relating to children in their election coverage. In the article, the state of the education system is analysed and responses from political parties are sought.

Alternatively, a common example of a child-related issue reported on but not forming part of election coverage are the stories around girl-children in the Eastern Cape as young as 13 years still being forced into marriage, particularly to older men, under the guise of a “cultural” tradition. This practice, known as ukuthwalwa, is a clear violation of these children’s rights as defined through the Constitution and associated legislation. This received fairly wide coverage, but not one of these reports appeared to have attempted to access political parties for their responses on this serious issue, despite the justice system being identified as part of the problem in preventing this practice and ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice. (In addition to our daily reports which raised this issue, MMA has written a short analysis of one of these stories.

The ANC has a charter on children (The Children’s Charter of South Africa), which could easily have formed a platform for engagement with both the ruling party and other parties over this and any other number of issues. All parties should at least be asked whether they have similar charters in place, or if there is an intention to develop one.

Media should be seeking party responses to child mortality and poverty, education and safety, but instead there is an almost deadly silence on these subjects. ‘Deadly’ is used quite deliberately, as the consequences of party and media silence on the issues facing children in South Africa are very serious, and represent a likely continuation of policies and approaches that are leading to a life of hardship and early death on a wide scale for South African children.

Where children do appear in election coverage, reports continue the pattern of most general media coverage in that children’s images are used in photographs that are then minimally related to the focus of reports or not related at all. Children appearing to be hungry, sick, and suffering the effects of poverty or other hardship appear favoured for drawing attention to stories, and are then given little or no attention, or voice, within the report – when they could very well form a primary topic, such as for the effects and qualities of rural poverty . Alternatively, children appear in images incidentally, when standing next to relatives for instance.  Using children in this way, and then denying their concerns a voice, could be argued as yet another form of abuse.

It should be pointed out that in MMA’s experience of working with children, children do read and watch news when able to access news sources, such as reading their parent’s discarded newspapers, or watching television. Media’s performance is not likely to encourage the political participation of children when they reach adulthood. A lack of child-related stories, and extremely rare stories that are positive or discuss potential avenues for action and change in the circumstances of children, are likely to make children feel disempowered and voiceless and have little confidence in the political system that is supposed to stand for and protect them.

Summary

With the exception of a handful of articles by some journalists, election coverage highlighting the serious issues faced by South African children has been extremely disappointing for its absence. In the previous weekly report, it was noted that in media’s role of holding government to account and informing citizens, it was particularly important for media to give voice to the concerns and opinions of the marginalised in society, as so often they remain silenced through powerlessness and political disinterest. It is even more important that media fulfil this role during an election period, when the need for information and potential for influence and change is the greatest.

South African children have been truly marginalised by government, political parties and media, which is inappropriate under ordinary conditions, but almost unforgivable under the severe conditions currently faced by many South African children. As members of our most vulnerable group, children rely on adult society for their care and protection, and media needs to recognise their function in contributing to their care and protection by holding government to account and informing citizens around issues facing children, and services and interventions addressing their needs.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

________________________________________

Sources

Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town (Online):
– Take-up of the Child Support Grant (July 2006)
– Children living in income poverty (2005)
– Infant mortality rate Indicator (IMR) (2000)
– Children with access to water on site (2005)

Measuring child poverty in South Africa, Judith Streak, Derek Yu and Servaas van der Berg,  HSRC Review, Vol. 6, No. 4, November 2008 (An analysis of the Income and Expenditure Survey 2005/06 (IES 2005) undertaken by to provide a more recent and comprehensive child poverty profile)

Implementation of the child support grant, Beth Goldblatt, Solange Rosa, Katharine Hall,
Centre for Applied Legal Studies, University of the Witwatersrand and the Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town, 2006

Mid-year population estimates, 2008, Statistics South Africa

Community Survey, 2007, Statistics South Africa

Trends in the percentage of children who are orphaned in South Africa: 1995–2005, Statistics South Africa, 2006

Mortality and causes of death in South Africa: Findings from death notification, 2006, Statistics South Africa

What are the leading causes of death among South African children? Debbie Bradshaw,
David Bourne, Nadine Nannan, Medical Research Council Policy Brief, December 2003, No.3

Age and Aids: South Africa’s crime time bomb?, Martin Schönteich, African Security Review Journal, Institute for Security Studies,  V8, No. 4, 1999

WHO (Child Mortality), Online, 2003

WHO (Millenium Development Goals), Online, 2009

Oro-facial trauma in child abuse fatalities, V M Phillips, Y van der Heyde, South African Medical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3, March 2006

Children’s Act, 2005.

Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

SOUTH AFRICA: Country needs free universal education IRIN Africa (Online), 30 October, 2008

Critical literacy in South Africa: Possibilities and constraints in 2002, Jeanne Prinsloo, Hilary Janks, University of the Witwatersrand, English Teaching: Practice and Critique, V.1, No.1, November 2002

International Center for Education Statistics (Online), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2006

NRF Project Report: Mapping Barriers to Basic Education in the Context of HIV and AIDS, Nithi Muthukrishna, University of KwaZulu-Natal, School of Education and Development (Online), 2006

Learning to be lost: Youth Crime in South Africa, Eric Pelser, Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, Discussion Paper for the HSRC Youth Policy Initiative, Pretoria (HSRC Online), May 2008

See the full list of media reviewed for this report

– Tanya Owen

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