The 2017 national child protection week is upon us.
This laudable initiative is commemorated yearly between the months of May and June.
The annual event, which started in 1997, is observed in South Africa to create awareness on the rights of children.
The focus is to mobilise the different sectors in the society to ensure that children are cared for and protected.
Although the initiative is led by the department of social development, all role players are expected to be involved in creating a safe and secure environment for children.
This year’s campaign theme is “Let us all protect children to move South Africa forward”.
An important word in the theme is “all” which should remind us about the concept of “ubuntu: my child is your child” – a concept that we are gradually losing over time.
Children in South Africa live in a society with a Constitution that has the highest regard for the rights of children and for the dignity of all.
Protecting children from violence, exploitation and abuse is not only a basic value but also an obligation as clearly set out in Article 28 of the Constitution. However, our children are living in a dangerous environment.
South Africa has been named one of the worst countries in the world to raise children, according to a Unicef report. The most worrisome relate to murder, abuse, neglect and sexual exploitation.
A horrific number of child deaths are reported in South Africa each week. Lately, the abuse, killing and exploitation of children have increased unabated.
Just before the commencement of child protection week, the body of a four-year-old was found stuffed in a plastic bag not far away from her town.
Similarly, a five-year-old boy was stabbed to death and his blood drank in what was believed to be a ritualistic act.
The body of a nine-year-old was discovered in an open field in Lenasia.
The discovery of the body of a three-year-old Elsies River child who was murdered and dumped in a shallow grave shocked the nation, and the list goes on.
This cruelty to children, unfortunately, is the sad state of children in South Africa. Several families now live in fear.
While one family may be worried about the safety of their child, another would be hoping their child is alive.
The death rate of children in South Africa can only be equated to that of a country at war.
The question however remains, is child protection week adequate to respond to the issues around the protection of children?
There is a need to reflect on how far society has come in understanding the issues around the protection of children.
As much as child protection week is an important awareness campaign tool, a week in a year is not enough to provide the much-needed awareness on the challenges, as well as to empower people to understand how to protect themselves.
As a result of the increasing trend and the scourge of child abuse, neglect and exploitation the awareness campaign should be all year round and not just for one week.
One of the growing areas of concern which has not received adequate attention is the trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is becoming an increasing form of child exploitation in South Africa but the response to the challenge has not recognised it as an epidemic.
In May, the South African Police Service rescued young girls from a sex slave den in Springs Gauteng province. The rescue of young people in sex slave dens has become a regular occurrence but society has not stopped to ask the critical questions.
The more concerning aspect is the desensitisation of the society to the exploitation of children.
The response to the problem has always been spontaneous and reactionary but never from a proactive position which reflects on the challenges to find solutions.
Whenever the stories of children rescued from sex slave dens surfaced, society went into a state of frenzy and the airwaves were saturated with reactions on the incidence.
But soon afterwards, that fizzled out and it was as though it never happened, until another story surfaces.
This is not particularly the case with other social problems which the society pays a lot of attention to and invest resources to find a solution to the problem.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children creates a culture that considers humans as possessions to be used, with no consideration for their well-being.
Commercial sexual exploitation of children has a close link with human trafficking.
The one common feature is that the victims are taken from communities and sent off as sex slaves by the trafficking rings.
It is, however, difficult to obtain statistics or figures on the scale, scope or magnitude of the problem due to the lack of studies or research, as well as the hidden nature of the phenomenon.
However, South Africa is among the countries most affected by the challenge of commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The challenges of commercial sexual exploitation of children in South Africa reflect a different dimension and a growing trend in the pattern of modern day slavery.
A recent global study conducted by ECPAT International on sexual exploitation of children shows that the extent of sexual exploitation of children is increasing dramatically and its nature has changed over time.
The South African component of the study indicates that of the total number of cases of child exploitation reported between 2014 and 2015, 97% related to exploitation through prostitution and for other commercial purposes, 1% related to involvement in pornography, while 2% related to trafficking.
This shows that the challenges of sexual exploitation of children, particularly for commercial purposes, cannot be ignored.
This year, as we reflect on how to keep children safe, we must also look at how we prioritise the issues around the protection of children.
For instance, although there are designated special days for health topics, however, health issues are considered of great importance to deserve columns in the print media and segments on electronic media.
These platforms are not just used to discuss the problem but they are used to provide regular information to the public on the topics.
The issue of gender, economy, fashion, beauty and lifestyle are considered essential that they deserve daily, weekly or monthly platforms to provide society with tips and information relevant to the topics.
However, we have not considered child protection, especially protection from exploitation and trafficking, serious enough to deserve regular segment in the print and electronic media.
This is not about discoursing the problem but about providing tips and information for families, communities or individuals to protect children from abuse, exploitation and neglect.
We need to reflect deeper and harder as a society and ask ourselves if we truly are serious about the protection of All children.
In order to show we are committed to child protection, we need to invest more to understand the challenges.
New models of engagement between the government, business and the development sector are key to achieving the much-needed change both at the national and international levels.
It is important to bring stakeholders together to take a holistic view on how the challenges are understood and addressed.
This is to ensure the approaches and actions are aligned in a way that maximises the benefits to all children.
This includes improved resources and planning, data management, policing.
This will also include increased capacity building of frontline workers and enhanced coordination mechanisms, as well as harmonisation that will achieve broad-based objectives.
It will entail the use of technology to monitor and report cases. Public discussions where for instance, sexual exploitation of children is recognised as a problem in and of itself need to be brought to the fore.
• Dr Benny Obayi is acting national executive director of Child Welfare South Africa