What lies behind child homicide in South Africa

In South Africa, many child homicides are the result of children being abandoned. Shutterstock

Research analysing the homicide rates of children under the age of five in South Africa shows some disturbing trends. Findings released by the South African Medical Research Council suggest that children under the age of five have the highest risk of being killed during the first six days of their life. This is the first time that child homicide has been analysed in South Africa. The author of the publication, Medical Research Council Professor Naeemah Abrahams, spoke to The Conversation Africa’s Health and Medicine Editor Candice Bailey.

How is child homicide defined?

Child homicide can be broken down into infanticide and neonaticide. Infanticide is when a child under one years old is killed. Neonaticide is when a child is killed within the first 28 days of being born. This includes deliberate killing where a child is, for example, suffocated, or passive killing where the child is killed through nutritional, physical or emotional neglect.

Many neonaticides are the result of mothers abandoning their children without care. Either they intend to kill the child or abandon the child with the hope that someone will find and care for it. This study was not able to determine the circumstances behind these newborn deaths and mothers are by default considered the perpetrators. It is not known to what extent fathers are also involved in the abandonment of newborns.

Unwanted pregnancies are the most common cause of infanticide and neonaticide. But some infants are also killed because they are disabled or of the wrong gender. In some cultures greater value is placed on male children than female children.

What are the child homicide rates in South Africa?

Our research shows that in 2009, 454 children under the age of five died due to homicide. More than half of the children who died were 28 days old or younger. And the vast majority of these were not even six days old when they died. They had been abandoned.

Although our research shows that there was no gender bias among child homicides, more boys were killed in urban areas than in rural areas.

Infant mortality is viewed as a key indicator for the development and health status of a country. But many countries – particularly low and middle income countries – do not often collect or analyse data on child homicides.

In Africa, for example, statistics on child homicide are rare. Currently Dar es Salaam, Tanzania has one of the highest reported rates of neonaticide. For every 100 000 births in the country, 27 children are killed with the first 24 hours.

And a study in Ghana argues that nearly 15% of deaths among children under the age of three could be linked to infanticide practices.

In developed countries the rates are substantially lower. In the US, UK, and New Zealand reported incidences of infanticide and neonaticide range between 2.1 and 6.9 for every 100 000 live births.

Why are the rates so high and what can be done about it?

Child homicide is often not considered a priority against competing public health problems contributing to these statistics. In addition, there has been an opinion in the child homicide field that the context of child homicide is different in low and middle-income settings.

Our statistics suggests that reproductive, mental health, and social services are failing to identify and help vulnerable mothers in South Africa. Intervening is critical at all levels including reproductive services as well as child protection services.

To tackle this problem, multi-sectoral prevention strategies are needed. A pilot child death review system that has been initiated in South Africa to identify and describe the patterns and causes of child death could assist in developing such strategies.

In addition, the role of fathers in the care of children should be strengthened.