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Veil of silence over abusive practices has to end, says child protection researcher

Image: 123RF/ ARTIT OUBKAEW

A girl who abandons her baby because the alternative is impossible, and a boy at an elite institution who withdraws into catastrophic despair because he’s at the bottom of the school tradition’s pecking order — these are two sides of the same deadly coin of patriarchy, says child protection researcher Dee Blackie.

The Joburg-based founder of community engagement initiative, Courage, helped kick-start the newly launched Makhanda Children’s Rights Coalition. The Daily Dispatch asked Blackie why child exploitation had such a hold on SA society.

Question: In a 2019 interview you name patriarchy as the root cause of child abandonment. Deon Wiggett’s My Only Story revealed patriarchal “tradition” to contribute to a culture in which grooming and bullying are disguised and sanctioned in a school environment. Are these social issues part of the same spectrum?

Dee Blackie (DB): Patriarchy is simple — SA’s constitution says we are all equal. But practically, because of cultural, religious or societal norms, some people are more important than others. This inequality of power cuts across social and economic divides. Patriarchal hierarchy is at the root of gender-based violence and it’s at the root of harmful traditions in schools that reinforce a pecking order.

Q: A lot of people switch off when what sounds like academic jargon comes their way. Please explain what patriarchy actually is.

DB: In SA, patriarchy has its origins in colonial patronage — political favour. Boys were sent to schools designed to replicate those relationships so those power relations remained. This is still the model for many SA schools.

The veil of silence over harmful practices like school initiation is essential to keeping the hierarchy in place and this makes these institutions the perfect breeding grounds for abuse.

In this system the only way not to be at the bottom of the pile is the be “part of the club”.

Q: Do you think Wiggett’s series has helped turn the tide against harmful school cultures that prioritise competition and hierarchy?

DB: I think it’s made everyone aware. It’s broken the chains of silence. It’s brought these practices into the light and helped more parents to come forward for their children.

Q: What do you think needs to happen in schools to make them safe, child-centred spaces?

DB: In my work I’ve found a lot of times that children don’t actually know what abuse is. We need to start by giving children a language to talk about abuse and exploitation. A new vocabulary.

Q: What national networks will Makhanda’s Children’s Rights Coalition be able to tap into?

DB: The biggest is the Children’s Act. Courage [Blackie’s community engagement programme on which the new Makhanda organisation is based] turns the law into a pragmatic tool to implement the rights enshrined in the Children’s Act.

The challenge is to get schools to engage in the process.

Q: With abandoned children, the mother is often someone with no resources. How can parents empower themselves to protect their and other people’s children within, say, a school environment?

DB: Step one in child protection is to speak up, and that goes for everyone. Even child protection officers need reminding.

Be aware of what your children are doing; children are more vulnerable than ever, thanks to the internet.

Talk to your children; create a safe environment to engage with your child.

Most of all, be an intentional parent, not an accidental one. Have a vision of what kind of world you would like to create for your children.


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