“[A better society] will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures.” – Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 10 December 1993.
Child abuse is a global problem. Studies indicate that 25% to 50% of children globally suffer from physical abuse, and around 20% of girls and 5 to 10% of boys experience sexual abuse. There are substantial consequences not only for the affected persons, but also for society as a whole, and these can no longer be overlooked.
News headlines on child sexual abuse is now a daily recurrence, with some reading:
“Sexual abuse at Cape Town crèche”, “Top Cape school fires music teacher facing sexual assault”, “Jehovah’s Witnesses hid child sex abuse, inquiry told”, “Six men guilty in latest UK child sex abuse case”, “UK child sex abuse stuns judge”, “French judges on way to CAR to probe alleged child sex abuse”, “Case against Bloemfontein sexual assault parents postponed again”.
This year child sexual abuse has remained a prominent feature on the news agenda with details emerging about a range of high profile abuse cases. Trusted individuals such as, Bob Hewitt, Rolf Harris and Dr Myles Bradbury were convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse against children and popular South African Dutch Reformed Minister and Author Ds. Solly Ozrovech was accused of sexually abusing children.
Many children worldwide are affected by such violence, yet it is seldom acknowledged, in part because it is so commonplace. Child sexual abuse is a hideous crime. For the vast majority of us, the idea of violating, hurting and abusing a child is intolerable. Nonetheless, these crimes are not as rare as we would like to think. Every day, countless children around the world are sexually abused and exploited.
Over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew. In the UK have seen the number of recorded sexual offences against children increase by between 12% and 39% in 2013/14 compared with the previous year. For ChildLine UK in the past year, counselling sessions where the main concern was sexual abuse or online sexual abuse accounted for 45% of discussions.
According to a UNICEF research document it is estimated that almost 3,500 children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse and neglect every year in the industrialized world. The greatest risk is among younger children. A small group of countries Spain, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Norway appear to have an exceptionally low incidence of child maltreatment deaths; Belgium, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Hungary and France have levels that are four to six times higher. The United States, Mexico and Portugal have rates that are between 10 and 15 times higher than those at the top of the league table.
In Australia the number of children being sexually assaulted by family members has more than doubled in the past 5 years, with almost 10 incidents being reported to police every week. While police have pointed to mandatory reporting requirements for the increase, campaigners have warned that the dominant image of a child sex offender being a stranger is leaving children vulnerable to offenders who are known to them.
Data from a 2011 study in Germany on a nationally representative sample of individuals aged 16 to 40 found that about 6% of women and 1% of men reported incidents of sexual harassment in their youth.
A 2006 national survey collected data from girls and women aged 16 to 70 in Italy on their experiences of being touched sexually or forced to do any other sexual activity against their will. Around 7% said they experienced sexual violence by a non-partner before age 16 with the most commonly reported perpetrators being acquaintances, relatives and strangers.
The Optimus Study carried out in Switzerland in 2009, collected information from adolescent boys and girls (aged 15 to 17) on their experiences of sexual victimization. Around 40% of girls and 20% of boys reported incidents of sexual victimization that did not involve physical contact at some point in their lives.
In 2012, Prevent Child Abuse America released an economic analysis positing that the prevalence of child abuse and neglect in the United States costs over $80 billion annually. It is estimated that the economic cost of child abuse in East Asia and the Pacific exceeds $160 billion based on economic losses due to death, disease and health risk behaviours attributable to child abuse and in the UK 3.2 billion pounds.
South Africa is reported to have one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. Several small scale studies have found that adolescent girls are at particular risk for experiencing forced sex with estimates ranging from 39% to 66%. Despite this, nationally representative data on the prevalence of sexual violence against children remain limited. An analysis of the 2010/2011 police records found that a total of 28,128 sexual offences against children under the age of 18 were reported to the police, representing just over 50% of all the reported crimes committed against children that year. An analysis by victim’s’ age using the 2008/2009 police-recorded data reveals that around 6 in 10 of the reported sexual offences committed against children that year affected those below the age of 15 and that about one quarter of the child victims were under the age of 10. It is important to note however, that research has consistently found that most sexual assaults are not reported to the police, and even when they are, the age of the reported victim is often unknown. A 2011-2012 nationally representative survey found that around 1 in 20 secondary school students (5%) reported at least one act of unwanted sexual contact (regardless of whether penetration occurred or not) at school in the year preceding the survey. Girls were much more likely to report having been recently sexually violated at school than boys (8% and 1%, respectively). Another study conducted in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces found that 28% of men reported previously raping a woman (whether alone or with accomplices). Reports of rapes by multiple perpetrators were especially high, with 20% of men reporting that they participated in a gang rape. However, only 5% of men admitted that they had raped a child under the age of 15.
Gauteng emerges as the province with the largest number of recorded crimes against children, although KwaZuluNatal has a larger child population. Northern Cape records the highest rate of recorded crime, closely followed by Western Cape and Free State. While the reported rates of crimes against children are extremely high, many incidents go unreported. The hidden nature of violence against children arises, among others, from the fact that young children usually lack the capacity to report violence and many others may fear further harm by the perpetrator or may worry that interventions by authorities may make their situation worse.
South Africa has an excellent and extensive legislative framework for protecting children. Both the Constitution and the Children’s Act ensures that children’s rights are protected and that provisions are made to ensure the best interests of the child.
Sexual violence in childhood hinder all aspects of development: physical, psychological and social. Apart from the physical injuries that can result, exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, along with early pregnancy, are also possible outcomes. Other physical consequences of sexual violence include a range of self-harming behaviours, such as the development of eating disorders, like bulimia and anorexia.
Children who have been abused are also more likely to attempt suicide; the more severe the violence, the greater the risk. Researchers have consistently found that the sexual abuse of children is associated with a wide array of mental health consequences, including symptoms of depression and panic disorder. Anxiety and nightmares are also commonly observed in younger children who have experienced such violence. The psychological impact of sexual violence can be severe due to the shame, secrecy and stigma that tend to accompany it, with child victims often having to find ways to cope in isolation. The risk of developing adverse mental health outcomes has been found to increase in relation to the frequency and severity of children’s exposure to sexual violence and to exert a lasting impact.
It is clear that the child violence situation in South Africa needs urgent and serious attention. Much of the needed policy and legislation is in place. The challenge now is to establish the coordinating and other mechanisms to ensure efficient and effective implementation of the policies, legislation and related programmes so as to fulfil the implied commitment to a better society characterised by the welfare and happiness of the country’s children.
Bertus Preller – Family Law Attorney
Bertus Preller & Associates Inc.
T: +27 21 422 2461
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Bertus Preller is a Family Law and Divorce Law Attorney in Cape Town.