Friday, July 24, 2009

Children at risk during the Soccer World Cup

The Soccer World Cup in 2010, is going to bring with it a range of (what do we call them these days?) … “challenges” to our already over-challenged society. Like on our roads, and infrastructure, challenges to our police services and our drug teams and our tourism operators. But consider this. All schools will be on holiday for the entire month. Most of the big matches are going to be played at night and, in my now fairly extensive experience of Fan Parks, kids will be either brought to these Fan Parks and dumped, or they will just arrive there and be there, completely unsupervised. That has got to be a rather large “challenge”.

More, there will be child predators on the loose in a way in which we have just not experienced before – so we are led to believe by the National Intelligence Agency. It is, apparently, a feature of major events such as this, the world over.

Several years ago, that eminently sensible director of Childline, Joan van Niekerk, was interviewed in television. She was asked, in a leading kind of way, whether she thought it would be a good idea to start a register of “known pedophiles” so that “these people could be exposed”? A night or two earlier, we were shown footage of a house in the UK (where such registers are kept), having been attacked by a crowd because the crowd wanted quick justice for someone who had been “named” on the register.

Joan van Niekerk said that all the research had shown that keeping a register of known offenders appeared to have no effect whatsoever on either the dissemination of child pornography or on instances of abuse. And surely, those are precisely the things one would want to have an effect on. But what the evidence (rather than the emotion) seems to show is that keeping such a register appears to have no effect at all, except in perpetuating the fondly held myth that this kind of “punishment” is an effective deterrent. The evidence does not back up the belief. But, I suppose, like with the generally held beliefs about capital punishment, the evidence shouldn't deter us, should it? I mean, who bothers about things like that?

The other points which she made were, to my mind, of real importance to the issue. She said that behind every instance of child porn, there is an abused child. A child who has been, perhaps, physically held down and forced into sex acts by people who exercise power over that child. A child who, most likely, will be damaged psychologically or alternatively, a child whose social circumstances are so awful that in order to survive, they have no alternative but to allow themselves to be abused in this way. It is a sad reality that it is often the very people who shout loudest about exposing and punishing pedophiles that care least about the condition of children in the broader society, abused or otherwise.

Another point which Joan van Niekerk made (and it is a well known one) was that it is frequently the case that child abusers were themselves victims of abuse, and so the terrible cycle perpetuates. This is not to condone their actions, for goodness sake, but it is to at least acknowledge some societal, and not simply individual responsibility for the whole thing. The cycle of abuse will continue in the kind of social conditions which encourage it and you won't stop it by putting a few people here and there on a register.

We need to ask ourselves, though, why there is such a big reaction when children get abused sexually? What about all the other forms of abuse we seem quite happy to live with, like poor education? And forced underage labour on our farms? And social conditions which force children into sex, just to eat? These seem to elicit considerably less rage and angst in South Africa. In fact they are frequently just ignored.

The 2010 soccer event is proving to provide something of a magnifying glass to some aspects of our rather damaged society. The risk posed to our children is one of them. But let us not suppose for one single moment, that the risk is primarily external, nor that it is an isolated risk. Children are raped and abused on a daily basis in our society. Children live in absolute poverty and have very poor access to anything like a good education. For some reason, these things seem to be of less concern to people.

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