It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the extent of poverty and suffering in our society, especially as it affects those most vulnerable– the children. “What can I do to make a real difference?” is a question often asked by many of us who care about the future of our society. The temptation is to support short-term initiatives visible in the media: collecting blankets for winter, toys for Christmas, or ingredients for soup kitchens once a week. In reality, as noble as these efforts may be, they offer only temporary relief and in fact entrench the dependence of those in need.
The greatest commandment given to us as disciples is to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength. The second is to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12: 30-31). “Who is my neighbour?” one might ask. In response Jesus says “whatever you do for one of the least of my brothers, you do for me…..”(Matt 25:40). Taking this second commandment to heart, we should love vulnerable children as though we ourselves were vulnerable. If this were the case, we would want to remove the cause of our vulnerability forever, not just relieve the symptoms on a temporary basis.
Vulnerability in this case refers to all children who are vulnerable because of circumstances they face in life. Emphasis on HIV & AIDS is avoided as it implies that only children affected by HIV & AIDS are vulnerable and it reinforces stigma against the disease. Furthermore, it ignores the vulnerability of children affected by poverty, war and other adversities. Research indicates that approximately 22 million people (50% of the population) in South Africa live in poverty on an income of less than R144 per month. Children are the most poor and vulnerable in the country: three in every four children experience poverty, with 25% being stunted due to malnutrition. Amongst these vulnerable children are those experiencing further vulnerability: disability, HIV & AIDS, street children, and children of farm workers, refugees and illegal immigrants.
The scale of vulnerability in southern Africa has shocked us all, and understandably various “quick fix” solutions have been sought to remedy the consequences of these problems. One of these solutions has been to support institutional care for vulnerable children. Recently though, much research has shown that this form of care, whilst visible and seemingly effective, can have detrimental effects on children. It is also an expensive form of caring for individual children. The research does not question the caregivers’ compassion, love or motives, but rather focuses on the complicated long-term effects on the children’s development and sense of belonging in the community.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which most of the world’s nations have subscribed, states clearly that “the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members, and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community”. (Preamble)
Furthermore, four key principles underpin the Convention:
- protection against all forms of discrimination; (Article 2)
- the best interests of the child shall be of primary consideration; (Article 3)
- the inherent right to life, ensured by maximum effort for survival and development; (Article 6)
- the right of the child to voice his/her views freely and to participate in matters pertaining to his/her development. (Article 12)
This last key principle, of ensuring that children participate in their development, is critical for the sustainability of long-term development initiatives in communities.
Following the Taylor Committee’s inquiry into the social security system (appointed by Cabinet in 2000), civil society formed ACESS (the Alliance for Children’s Entitlement to Social Security) and committed itself to facilitating a process to assess the shortcomings of the system to children. The resulting report makes fascinating reading and demonstrates the value in allowing children to voice their views and be involved in determining their own future.
In light of the above, a growing number of organisations, including ttt4c, are adopting a more holistic response to vulnerable children and that is to support the development of the communities in which vulnerable children live – so that whole families, whole communities are strengthened and enabled to care for their own children. The investment might be less in monetary terms, but the returns are infinitely greater in terms of quality of life for the child, his family and his community. Investing in empowering and building up the local church within a community to support and care for vulnerable children is a direct response to the Biblical mandate to love our neighbours as ourselves.
In answer to the question “what can I do to make a real difference?”, Robert Chambers in his book Rural Development: putting the last first, states that “social change flows from individual actions. By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions and themselves change”. This is very encouraging as it implies that we can make a difference as individuals, by changing the way we think or the way we support development initiatives. With reference to the church’s role in development, Julius Nyerere stated that “the church must work with the people in building a future based on social justice. It must participate actively in initiating, securing and creating the changes which are necessary. Its love must be expressed in action against evil and for good.”
ttt4c has developed the SEED Strategy to empower churches to respond to the plight of vulnerable children in local communities, and aims to Strengthen, Encourage, Equip & Deploy local churches in their ministry to children. Our vision is to see 100,000 vulnerable children supported through 200 local churches by 2020. Sustainable development skills and programmes will be developed with churches and with the active participation of children and communities to realise this dream.
This will ultimately give communities a sense of hope and direction for their future and the future of our society. Also, the local church, in leading the high impact development within the community, fulfills the greatest commandment given to us as Christians and this ultimately gives God the glory for the care and protection of His precious children.