Greater risk of abuse for children with disabilities

Among the range of rights violations that children with disabilities have to endure, abuse ranks as the vilest. Their physical and emotional abuse and neglect, alongside sexual exploitation, including rape, should be of prime concern for all South Africans. In fact, children with disabilities are three times more likely to suffer abuse than other children.

The role of stress and isolation

According to André Kalis, specialist for advocacy, policy and children’s matters at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD), the abuse and neglect of children can often be linked to the stress and challenges associated with raising a child with a disability.

“The extra care and attention the child requires, and the frustration caused by not knowing how to deal with the child’s disability can turn to anger expressed through physical abuse or emotional neglect, either from the parents or a caregiver,” he explains. A lack of support in raising a child with a disability and single parenthood can also be triggers for maltreatment.

Targets for sexual abuse

Through their exposure to different people in the community, coupled with inadequate supervision, children with disabilities can become targets for sexual abuse. In most cases, the perpetrator is known to the child. Kalis notes that, while the reasons for sexual abuse are myriad, the common defencelessness of children with disabilities is an enabling factor.

“The child could be incapable of verbally objecting, alerting people, or creating the necessary movements to protect him- or herself. In some cases, the child can be unaware of what is happening, and the sexual abuse can extend over a period of time,” he says.

When the child does report the abuse, there are further complications that often prevent the perpetrator from being brought to justice. According to Kalis, the child might not be believed by the parents at first. And if the child’s account is indeed trusted, the abuse might be swept under the carpet and not talked about.

Bongi Nyathi, founder and director of Sibahle Nationality Disability Project in the North West, adds that one reason for ignoring abuse might be to protect the household income. She recounts cases in which children were abused by their stepfathers, who were the sole breadwinners. The abuse therefore went unreported.

Kalis says another major factor prevents perpetrators from being apprehended and charged for crimes as serious as sexual abuse: “The South African Police Service and the prosecuting authority could be reluctant to pursue the alleged perpetrator, because they are under the impression that the child – based on their disability – would not be a reliable or credible witness in court.”

“Such behaviour by our protection services is nothing less than prejudice and discrimination. Based on this, one cannot help but think that a child with a disability is perceived as being of lesser value than an able-bodied child,” he continues.

Importance of intermediaries

There is a final stumbling block for abused children with disabilities. When the abuse is finally reported to the authorities, a disability such as a speech impediment, deafness or an intellectual disability can cause that police do not pursue the case. Kalis believes this is because of the prejudiced belief that the child can’t be understood when making a statement or testify properly in court.

“Under no circumstances may a child be denied their right to access justice,” he explains. “There are processes that must be embarked upon to facilitate the child’s testimony, regardless of the nature and degree of disability.”

In such cases, a trained intermediary such as a speech therapist is crucial. By using a soundboard or alternative communication methods, the intermediaries can help relay the children’s testimonies. The NCPD has been instrumental in advocating on behalf of these children where authorities are failing them by not pursuing charges against the alleged offenders.

One successful intervention came in the case of the rape of a Northern Cape girl child with cerebral palsy. The child’s foster mother could understand her, yet the case was dismissed because the girl, owing to her speech impediments, wasn’t seen as credible. The NCPD lobbied the highest authorities in the country to get the case reopened and the alleged rapist eventually stood trial thanks to a speech therapist communicating the testimony of the child in court.

This would not have happened without the NCPD’s persistent lobbying over several years in this case. Taking into account the seriousness of a criminal offence such as rape, the neglect of the authorities is simply unacceptable.

Importance of education

Kalis and Nyathi both believe in the importance of education when dealing with abuse. Parents must be informed about the heightened propensity for a child with a disability to be subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Kalis emphasises that parents of a child with a disability must take any allegations very seriously.

Nyathi believes children with disabilities should be taught that abuse can be reported and that nothing ‘bad’ will happen to them when they do so. To show solidarity with children with disabilities, South Africans are urged to support worthy causes such as the annual Nappy Run awareness campaign and nappy-donation drive.

All funds from ticket sales and online donations go towards the purchase of nappies – a vital incontinence-management product for children with disabilities. For more information, visit www.nappyrun.org.za.

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