Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) was highly impressed by the Sunday Times article, “Children caught in the crossfire of warring parents” (04/10/2009, p. 10), by Claire Keeton. The article received a MAD OAT Glad nomination for taking a children’s rights perspective and focusing on how children can be harmed during disputes between parents.

Keeton referred to recent cases where children were burnt, set alight and shot dead for this purpose, stating, “All of us – family members, friends, neighbours, friends and the state – have failed to protect the four children killed on average every day by murderous, jealous or stressed adults (1 410 between 2007 and 2008).” By making this statement, Keeton acknowledges that everybody, at all levels of society, is responsible for the safety and well-being of children, and the protection of their rights.

Keeton used this statement to introduce a range of statistics related to child safety in our country, like the child homicide rate and the number of partners of abused women who have threatened to kill their children. This formed the basis of the article and gave a broader view of child abuse and protection issues in our society.

Keeton included input and advice from various experts, including head of a gender health unit and those from centres that work with children directly. The experts stressed how parents have used children as shields during fights and how people in violent relationships need to realise how this could impact on their children.

Accessing experts gave further depth to her research on how children are affected by parental disputes, and helped explain some of the power dynamics involved, between adults/children. For example, according to Van Niekerk, children are often seen by adults as extensions of themselves, rather than “people in their own rights needing protection”.

Keeton, along with the experts, further emphasised children’s rights, by stating, “Children’s rights are absent in many families, as well as in South African society in general”, and quoting Vawda, director of the Children’s Rights Centre, who stressed the need for a “strong children’s rights culture in the family.”

She made reference to legislation, specifically the Children’s Act, stating that it was illegal for parents to “use their children as ammunition in their emotional dramas”, and that it was an offence for parents to restrict access to the other parent without a legitimate reason.

This should be commended as educates and warns the public, specifically parents, about how legislation affects their responsibilities.

The article placed the situation for children within the broader context of society, giving the example of how the recession could be a source of stress, anger and anxiety for adults, which may leave children more at risk.

Keeton spoke of the need for expansion and funding of programmes that work and urged society and teachers to be on the lookout for families that need support, and children who might be anxious, angry or physically bruised. In doing so, she again put an emphasis on the role that the whole of society needs to play in tackling abuse, and suggested some solutions for how this could be done.

At the end of the article contact details were provided for both adults and children who may need counseling and support. This information is always helpful for people who need support outside their family structures, including children experiencing abuse, and adults that may be under stress.

MMA commends Claire Keeton for exceptional and rare reporting on children and their rights, and encourages all media to take note.

NB. Clare Keeton is a “child friendly journalist” who completed the Wits accredited course on Reporting on Children in 2009 convened by MMA, in partnership with Wits School of Journalism. If you are interested in this course, please contact MMA.

Reponse from journalist Clare Keeton:

“Thanks so much. Very rewarding to get this feedback”