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Understanding child poverty requires us to look at both challenges and progress

Pretoria, 23 May 2012 – In the lead up to Child Protection Week, from 27 May to 3 June 2012, recent media coverage has highlighted the harsh realities facing children who live in poverty in South Africa.

Public debates are crucial to advancing the child rights agenda in any vibrant democracy – but a full understanding of the key drivers of child poverty requires us to look at both challenges and progress in the context of the past and the present.

Since 1994, South Africa has put in place an impressive array of laws, policies, budgets and programmes that expand critical services for children – especially the most disadvantaged children.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first international convention ratified by South Africa at the advent of its democracy. Since then, the country has shown a leadership position in ensuring that its laws are aligned with the provisions of the Convention – as it led to the adoption of the Children’s Act, the development of a separate child justice system, and new child protection legislation, to name a few important milestones.

Yet, progress happens in the context of deep-seated inequities in child well-being due a number of historical and socio-economic reasons.

On the one hand, the country inherited a legacy of inequality and social dislocation, which translates into numerous social ills in the day-to-day lives of children, such as high levels of violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and unemployment.

On the other hand, high HIV prevalence rates have resulted in extreme vulnerabilities. Many children are deprived of the care of their biological parents; most of these children are placed in the care of extended families already under stress due to the impact of the pandemic.

While child poverty levels have decreased over the past decade, more than half of children still live in poverty. The challenge is to tackle increasing disparities based on geographical location, gender and income, among others.

The report South Africa’s Children: A Review of Equity and Child Rights, co-published in 2011 by the South African Human Rights Commission, the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities and UNICEF, examined the causes and impact of such disparities on children’s well-being.

But the report also highlights areas of progress:

South Africa’s social protection programme is one of the most wide-reaching among middle-income countries. One of its best-targeted grants – the Child Support Grant – has increased more than tenfold since 2000; today more than 10 million children receive it. (Evidence shows that this grant cushioned the blow of the global economic recession by helping to prevent a rise in child poverty.)

Similarly, access to early childhood development services has improved over the past decade, and enrolment in grade R increased from 15 per cent in 1999 to 77 per cent in 2010.

Significant strides have been made in reversing the spread of HIV and AIDS. The national mother-to-child HIV transmission rate fell from 8.5 per cent in 2009 to 3.5 per cent in 2010.

These are tangible examples that make a difference in the lives of millions of children and their families.
Yet behind these numbers, there are many who are left behind.

Translating child rights from principles into action is about looking behind national aggregates with an equity lens so we not only identify children who are deprived, but analyse the patterns and drivers of inequity in order to put in place policies and programmes that address these.

Although this is obviously a core responsibility of government agencies, with the support of development partners, Child Protection Week reminds us that, as individuals, we all have to play a part in helping to strengthen the care of all children.


On 21 May 2012, ‘The Times’ newspaper (South Africa) published an article entitled SA children’s misery (

  • The data in the article is available in the report South Africa's Children: A Review of Equity and Child Rights, co-published in 2011 by the South African Human Rights Commission and UNICEF. The report can be downloaded at:
  • The article refers to a ‘report yet to be released’ as the 2013-2017 Programme of Cooperation between Government and UNICEF. The Programme of Cooperation is a document, currently in draft form, which outlines how UNICEF and the Government of South Africa will work together to address challenges facing children. Once it has been approved by the UNICEF Executive Board, the document is publicly available.
  • The article contains an inaccuracy relating to the number of children living with HIV in South Africa. The article says: "More than 5 million children are HIV-positive, with between 250000 and 300000 babies born to HIV mothers annually." The correct figures are:
    There are more than 5 million people living with HIV. There are 330,000 children living with HIV.





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