Who’ll save the children?

Media reports from various countries across Africa have revealed increases in incidents of sexual abuse of minors despite persistent efforts to end the scourge that has severely threatened the livelihoods of the continent’s children.

Reports from South Africa, Tanzania , Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe over the past three months have shown increases in child violence that have had observers and government officials seriously concerned.

In some of the worst cases, reports showed that sexual abuse of minors occurred on average almost once every hour.

The statistics have triggered stronger calls for urgent action to stop violations of children’s rights, which the United Nations has said is one of its Millennium Development Goals.

Figures revealed in Zimbabwe ahead of the World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse last week showed that 8 600 cases of sexual abuse were reported in the country last year.

The figures translate to 24 reported incidents for each day of the year.

In Uganda, the African Network for Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) said child sexual abuse was the most common form of abuse in the country.

It said 7 844 cases of child abuse and neglect had been reported in the country in 2005, 5 693 of which were sexual abuse cases.

The country’s Bureau of Statistics also said a demographic and health survey had revealed that 65 000 Ugandan children – particularly young girls – were ‘married’, raising the spectre of them being sexually abused in such relationships.

However analysts say abuse of minors is “not a new problem”, and that while there has been an increase in the actual cases of child sexual abuse, there has also been an increase in the number of cases that are being reported.

“Due to the greater advocacy, there is just a greater awareness of child sexual abuse now and of the damage that is causes to children and family institutions than there was before,” University of the Witwatersrand Child Psychologist Dr Vinitha Jithoo said.

According to South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies (ISS), “what is worrying to service providers is the major increase in reported cases, the decrease in the average age of both victims and offenders and the escalation in the use of force”.

They are also concerned about the high number of gang rapes and the number of children victims who are HIV-positive.

The country was recently shocked by revelations that sexual offences committed by children have nearly doubled in the past year.

Statistics obtained from police, the courts, social workers and lobby groups indicated that between 25 and 43 percent of perpetrators of sex and violent crimes against children were children themselves.

Between 1999 and March this year, the state processed 130 059 child sex offenders, some of who were as young as 6 years old.

A report published in a local daily recently said an estimated 82 children were being charged in South African courts everyday for raping and indecently assaulting other children.

It said the majority of cases were reportedly inspired by acts seen on television.

But while the registered cases of child violence have raised eyebrows, experts say an even greater cause for concern is the huge number of cases that are still going unnoticed and unreported.

Advocacy groups say while much has been done to try and curb the occurrence of sexual abuse of minors, more urgent action needs to be taken to help break the silence of abused children.

In some societies even adults refuse to acknowledge the existence of child sexual abuse despite the evidence of physically and psychologically damaged children.

A coalition of child protection organisations is Zimbabwe said the country was struggling with damaging silence on abuse cases.

It said the problem was allowed to “fester undetected and unreported” because of families’ willingness to reach settlements over abuse cases and fear of reprisals when victims reported violations.

“Silence on the issue shelters the perpetrators and is a crime against children,” the alliance said.

The experts say failure to report violations is one of the main reasons why children are more vulnerable to infection by diseases.

Joan van Niekerk, Natinonal Co-ordinator of child protection organisation Childline South Africa said one of the biggest challenges in the field was facilitating disclosure of sexual assault before infections and pregnancies set in.

“. . . it is estimated that only 15 percent of all sexually assaulted children disclose the abuse within the 72 hour period required for effective use of PEP.

“Children do not report the abuse promptly because they are easily intimidated, often deeply shamed by the event, fear the loss of needed resources where the abuser is the breadwinner, may feel guilty and responsible for what has happened and are afraid of being punished,” van Niekerk said.

ANPPCAN notes that in many countries “most cases stop at the Police stations because the victims fear reproach from the aggressors’ family and children feel shy reporting sexual abuse cases.

“The Police also stifle some cases by denying receipt of any reports from the victims usually after the aggressors bribe the Police, which is unfortunate,” the organisation says.

The United Nations Children’s Educational Fund (UNICEF) says in many societies “child sexual abuse is worsened by widespread poverty, migration, social and economic insecurity and inadequate childcare arrangements”.

But in a number of African societies, traditional myths have played a significant part in promoting sexual abuses of minors.

Traditional healers in several countries have been known to prescribe sex with young children as a remedy for HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

“The “prescription” is also believed to work as a potion for those wishing to become wealthy and as an appeasement to angry ancestors.

“These are all things that have to be overcome if the battle against child sexual abuses is to be won in Africa but it does not mean that will be the end of it,” says Witwatersrand University Psychology research fellow Professor Gill Straker.

He points out that abuses of children are still rampant in western societies where there is no belief in the traditional myths causing suffering to many children in Africa.

“There are also psychological problems related to this issue that would have to be countered,” Straker says.

Interventions for child sexual abuse have included training and education programmes for children and active awareness campaigns that have been aimed at increasing awareness about the problem and about children’s rights.

UNICEF says it intends to increase education programmes to give children the confidence to speak out about the abuses that they are subjected to.

Other interventions, notably in South Africa and Uganda, have included countries changing their laws regarding sexual offences against women and minors.

Two weeks ago South Africa’s parliament proposed an amendment to the country’s Sexual Offences Bill putting the age of consent for sex at 16 years and stipulating that rape must include penetration “by any object” and not only penile penetration.

In Uganda, Parliament has debated amendments proposing that any person performing a sexual act on a child under 18 years commits an offence known as defilement.

This includes acts other than penile penetration. It may include penetration of the sexual organ by an object or the use of a sexual organ to penetrate any other part of the body.

Defilement is punishable by death and also caters for male children who are subject to sexual abuse in instances that may not necessarily include penetration of a sexual organ.

But in spite of such interventions, it is the silently suffering children that the majority of experts and observers are still worried about.

“A lot more still needs to be done to make it easier for abused children to talk without feeling victimised,” Straker says.

December 2006
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