Chapter in the book: Childhood Vulnerabilities in South Africa – Some Ethical Perspectives

In South Africa today, many children face high levels of physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse, as well as sustained neglect and exploitation. Families and homes, despite their protective possibilities, often remain the most vulnerable place for young children. Violence against children, either silenced or hidden from public sight, can become a normalised pattern for both adults and children with concerning long-term consequences. In the last few decades, this issue has received more sustained attention. Increasingly, evidence shows that it is imperative that both children and adults understand that children have full rights to bodily integrity and to grow, survive, thrive, participate and make their voices heard.

This chapter will explore the role of Christian faith communities in ending violence against children in South Africa today, in the light of recent strategies identified by experts as effective in preventing violence. It will draw on key insights from global child protection experts in a 2018 scoping study (Palm 2019a) carried out by academic experts from South Africa who interrogated both positive and negative aspects of the relationships between faith and violence against children to offer recommendations for faith communities’ unique theological role in ending violence against children, including tackling harmful social norms and underlying beliefs (Palm & Eyber 2019).

Children have not always been served well by religious precepts. The expression ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is an old English proverb dating from the 15th century which was recommended by religious leaders of the day and transported elsewhere on colonial ships. This harmful legacy of quiet obedience by children who were expected to know their place, was often accompanied by religiously infused dictates that ‘to spare the rod would spoil the child’. These are just two ways that religious values can entangle with existing cultural norms in ways that reinforce harmful attitudes to children. In a context of violence against children, these religious legitimations, still used today by some, endanger their safety and protection.

Christian faith communities in South Africa are, therefore, faced with an ethical challenge which requires them to reshape inherited harmful interpretations of theologies still used to legitimise certain forms of violence against children. Only if this takes place, can they effectively collaborate with the wider children’s sector at many levels within the child protection system to help re-orientate how children are treated. This chapter will point to the promise within child liberation theologies that can help to underpin this ethical task. This can assist local churches to place children at the centre of their faith as full citizens of the beloved community of God whose suffering needs to be seen and whose voices must be heard.

Click here to access the chapter on ResearchGate

Resource preview