Author: Lilian Kiefer, October 19 2016 - Nelson Mandela once said if we fail to take care of our children, then we cannot claim to be a nation at all. He said children are a nation’s greatest treasure, and that those who abuse children “tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation”. 

This message is very profound as it challenges us with an apparently basic yet critical responsibility: protecting our children. Children find themselves vulnerable to abuse and social injustice by their very nature of being children. They depend on adults for their welfare and protection. This presents a high responsibility on us as adults – to ensure that children are adequately protected as they depend on us for their lives.

One of the most difficult situations is that in our societies, child abuse has been tolerated to the levels that in some cases, it is considered acceptable for certain acts to be done against children. Those who speak against child abuse are in most cases seen to be the trouble-makers. When an unfavourable situation gets to be accepted as a norm, it calls for strategic reactions to stimulate a social change process to reorient the way people think and behave.

Such processes require effective participation of opinion leaders to lead the debates that influence public opinion. Traditional leaders like Chiefs and headmen, and religious leaders from various religions and churches are strategically positioned to play an influential role in these processes.

Recognising that traditional leaders are the gate keepers and influencers of opinions, Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) has engaged traditional leaders to lead child protection by ensuring that communities begin to identify all the aspects of their culture which negatively affect children and address them. This is one of the many approaches the organisation is using to strengthen child protection systems in communities. 

Traditional Leaders have a challenge to advance the important message that parents, guardians and societal members have a role to play to stop child abuse. Traditional and religious leaders can use their influence to create sanctions/penalties for perpetrators of child abuse.  Traditional Leaders need to be more proactive by setting high standards for child protection in their societies and ensuring basic rules and guidelines are enforced on how people in various capacities relate with children. 

Preventing or confronting child sexual abuse tends to be more difficult in rural and peri-urban communities. Sexual abuse takes places in familiar spaces like homes, or at school. The perpetrators are in most cases known by the family. I efforts to manage relationships, such occurrences tend to be ignored or buried. 

In its work with traditional and religious leaders, PSAf encourages them to find ways of speaking against such occurrences and ensuring that their subjects take these issues seriously to avoid protecting perpetrators at the expense of the welfare of the child. In most situations, silence around such injustices tend to protect the perpetrators and weaken children’s ability to protect themselves. Perpetrators take advantage of the difficulties in addressing such issues to get away with it. Children’s innocence and lack of knowledge tends to be used to make the child feel guilty, ashamed and silent. 

The PSAf approach has been to encourage traditional leaders to openly speak against such practices and ensure that their subjects take interest in monitoring child abuse of any form. Once perpetrators are found, traditional leaders are challenged to follow justice to ensure that children are protected.  

Traditional leaders have been empowered with understanding the laws and policies on child protection. These can be used in rising awareness among their people but also in advancing justice in cases where violation takes place. As custodians of culture, Traditional Leaders are challenged to champion child protection again practices that are considered culturally acceptable.

Hopefully, traditional leaders will rise up to the occasion and protect the nation’s greatest treasure by actively play their critical role in protecting children.

The author is PSAf Executive Director. For feedback, email: lilian@panos.org.zm.