Who will protect our children from us?

On April 24, I received a sickening audio from a friend in which a child experienced unbelievable abuse from his mother. I could not listen to it to the end, but I can still hear the child crying to this day. I am still trying to understand how a mother could do that to her own child. How families get into that kind of complete breakdown of protection! I later learnt the abuse was part of a quarrel between the mother and her ex-husband.

By Sibusisiwe Marunda

Apparently the woman in the audio is beating up her four-year-old son after ordering him to strip. She is heard telling him that he is going to suffer for his father’s promiscuity among other unprintable words that she is throwing at the four-year-old. Initially, I assumed someone had recorded her without her knowledge, but it turns out she actually recorded the abuse and sent it to the father of the child, supposedly to fix him for leaving her.

Media reports on the issue say the father made a report to Childline and eventually the woman was arrested, tried and sentenced to 12 months in prison. I have heard different views about the sentence, some think it should have been stiffer. The fact is, all who listened to the audio were shocked and felt angry with the mother. After the feelings of justified indignation have subsided, we are still faced with questions and decisions to make. This is the concern of this paper.

Parent child relationship

The first issue that I would like to put on the table is the age-old assumption that parents or caregivers own their children to do as they please with. This assumption has perpetuated corporal punishment, which has at times led to children dying in the name of discipline. It is this assumption that has made society turn a blind eye, even when it’s clear that the line between discipline and abuse has become blurred.

The Constitution clearly bestowed rights on children and firmly established them as rights holders. One of the rights that children have under the Constitution is the right to be protected from inhuman and degrading punishment.

The courts have repeatedly interpreted this to include corporal punishment. Yet children continue to suffer violence in the name of corporal punishment and society accepts it as part of child rearing. The paradox here is that even those who condemn the woman in the audio will defend corporal punishment with everything in their power! We need to realise that the very practice of corporal punishment creates opportunities for such extreme cases.

Parents and other institutions are duty bearers and have a duty to love, care and protect without necessarily owning the rights holders, who should have among other rights, the right to protection by the law. While children have a responsibility to take guidance and discipline from their parents and caregivers they are not objects to be abused at a whim. Parents have a responsibility to control and manage the anger that their children will at times trigger in them.

Gender-based violence and corporal punishment

The second issue is the fact that we still have to figure out how a mother has gotten into such mental and emotional dysfunctionality to mete out such abuse on her child. We need to ask and find answers to this question if we are to prevent these situations.

A look at media reports on violence against children will indicate a very disturbing trend of women harming their children in the process of physical punishment. This raises the question of why.

Traditionally, we know and accept that mothers are always nurturing to their children, even when faced with challenges. Which is why we had women refusing to be divorced arguing “I will bear it out for my children” even when a marriage has seemingly irretrievably broken down. In SiNdebele we say “a well looked after orphan is the one who has a mother”. The child in the audio still believed in his mother’s love and begs, “I will never throw stones again” he begs the protector-turned monster, hoping the beating will stop! Some women have even died after living in abusive situations because they want to stay in a marriage and protect their children.

Far be it from me to defend the mother in this audio! What she did to her child is by all standards, unacceptable and inhuman. When a child is with his or her mother they are supposed to be in a very safe space. This is the ideal but other issues have interfered with this ideal. Condemning her and stopping there, sadly does not address the problem.

We have to interrogate the question of what as society have we done to women that has put them in these situations of dysfunctionality. Clearly, this woman does not only need punishment, she also needs help. Clearly she has not been able to deal with and overcome the experience of a failed marriage and maybe other issues, which do not come out in this audio. I know many readers will not find this argument palatable, but if we do not ask these questions we will not prevent this abuse of children.
People have different coping capacities, some women have killed their husbands after years of physical and emotional abuse, some abuse their children, some commit suicide, some stay and overcome challenges and some, leave, survive and move on. Women live in a context and at times if they are not strong their context will define their behaviour negatively. I continue to offer my hypothesis that there is a definite connection between gender-based violence and violence against children including corporal punishment.

This could be through a process of transference of feelings of bitterness by women due to the emotional and at times physical violence at the hands of their male partners to their children. It can also be through a sheer misplaced belief that one has to beat up those who are weaker than them into submission, so the husband beats the wife who in turn beats the child and the hierarchy of power is maintained.

The bottom line is women suffer rejection and abuse from their male partners and some fail to cope and at times innocent children suffer. I don’t claim to have a definite explanation to these terrible actions, but I write to challenge our society to examine this phenomena, the answers might be surprising.

Focus on the child

What I found interesting about the report on this issue is that it was then not clear what happened to the child. The report says the father reported to a certain Childline counsellor, who made a police report and the mother was arrested, tried and sentenced. The report does not mention that the father took the child into his custody.

If he did not take the child, then what happened to the child. If the father is in social circumstances where the child is not welcome, then effectively the child has lost both parents. This situation then raises the question of whether we have adequate and effective child protection mechanisms to protect this child and support him to heal from the abuse?

If not, was jailing the mother the best solution. Agreed, the mother in her obtaining state of mind was an unfit parent. However, are we convinced we could not have used counselling to support the child to heal and the mother to embrace her child and change. Should we make a child choose between having a dysfunctional abusive mother and an absent father and having no parent at all?

We need professional psychologists to assess such cases on a case by case basis and make recommendations on whether it would be in the best interests of the child for him to be separated from the mother. If temporary separation is necessary to support and counsel the mother in order to reunite her with her child, I would support that.
The report does not mention the involvement of a psychologist in the case in question and yet it’s a clear case of mental and emotional dysfunctionality! Twelve months is not a very long time and the mother will walk out of prison, there is need for the prison and correctional system to be equipped to use the 12 months to support the mother to change and be ready to be a better parent. She did make a terrible mistake, but she also needs to be assisted to be able to spend the rest of her life making up for her mistake to her child.

This approach, in my view, would be more child focused and more supportive rather than punitive. As society and institutions we have a duty to mend fractured families and support them to heal and achieve resilience. Unless and until, as a society, we take this child focused approach our children will continue to need protection from us and that would be a tragedy and failed parenting by any measure.


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