'Perfect Storm' of kids at risk: Why a third of SA’s children are sexually abused

07 June 2016 | Story Marelise van der Merwe

One in three young South Africans are sexually abused in some way, a new UCT study says – challenging assumptions of previous research and providing a worrying glimpse into the fractured system that is supposed to provide safety and protection. How did this happen? The Daily Maverick's Marelise van der Merwe spoke to the researchers.

The next time you take your child to school or drive past a school bus, take a closer look. If the law of averages is to be believed, 12 abused children may be sitting in your child’s classroom, or 20 will be in the bus.

“We have a perfect storm of risk factors in South Africa,” explains Professor Catherine Ward, an author of the first national study of child maltreatment, published in South Africa. The study, commissioned by the UBS Optimus Foundation, found that about a third of young South Africans have suffered some form of sexual abuse; that there were over 350,000 cases of sexual abuse in 2015 alone and that – perhaps the biggest surprise of all – boys were at slightly higher risk of abuse than girls.

According to the study, 784,967 young people in South Africa are likely to have been the victims of sexual abuse by the age of 17. This number would fill the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg eight times, the authors note. The cases from 2015 alone would fill Kenya’s largest refugee camp or nearly 22,000 minibus taxis.

However, only 31% of girls, and none of the boys, reported these incidents of abuse to the police.

The study distinguished between contact abuse, which is frequently penetrative, and exposure abuse, which includes exposure to things children should not be exposed to, such as being made to watch the perpetrator masturbate or being forcibly exposed to pornographic material. Girls, says Ward, are more likely to suffer contact abuse, while boys are more likely to suffer exposure abuse. Overall, nearly 37% of boys and 34% of girls have been sexually abused by the age of 17.

“Even though the forms the abuse takes may differ, it can nonetheless be equally harmful to the victim and should be treated just as seriously,” Ian Welle-Skitt, spokesman for UBS Optimus Foundation, told journalists.

But why has sexual abuse been so misunderstood to date? First, says Ward, previous studies did not ask the same questions and second, the ways in which participants were approached were different.

“We approached households and schools,” she explains. The researchers requested permission from parents to hand their children confidential questionnaires at school, one of which they answered in the presence of an interviewer and one they answered alone. Especially for children who are abused at home, says Ward, school may be a place of relative safety, and if children are given the opportunity to answer questionnaires in privacy, they may be more willing to disclose.

Key trends

A major risk factor for sexual victimisation in South Africa is alcohol and drug abuse, and Ward says the children of substance abusers can be up to 1.5 times or even twice as likely to suffer sexual abuse. With South Africa having an unusually high rate of alcohol consumption per capita as well as a high rate of drug abuse, this poses a significant problem. Unfortunately for South Africa, where just a third of children live with both parents, the absence of at least one parent even for a period of time also places children at risk for sexual abuse, as does the psychiatric hospitalisation of a parent or intimate partner violence (or other violence) in the home. South Africa has high rates of both mental health disorders and violence in households as well.

Ward says the researchers are increasingly hearing of cases of peer-on-peer sexual abuse; co-author Lilian Artz says it’s unclear whether this indicates an increase in peer-on-peer sexual abuse or whether the more in-depth research is simply providing a clearer picture of child maltreatment nationally. What is clear, however, is that abuse is both under-reported and has to date been underestimated, particularly for boys; and that there is a clear link between sexual abuse and ill-effects on mental health and well-being.

“All forms of abuse, including particularly child sexual abuse, are associated with sequelae such as sexual risk behaviours, mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and PTSD, and substance misuse,” the report notes. “All of these – particularly mental health problems – can affect ability to perform at school.” A cycle, in short, that can affect all aspects of the child’s health in the long term.

Intoxication among children also places them at greater risk, but, says Ward, it’s important to realise that substance abuse among adults is a far more significant risk factor. “This is not a matter of children getting drunk and putting themselves at risk,” she says. “It is a matter of the adults around them abusing substances and not protecting them as they should.”

A further important trend is that the majority of perpetrators are known to the victims, say the authors. While there certainly is a high rate of attacks by unknown perpetrators, the concept of “stranger danger” is overstated considering the worrisome prevalence of known perpetrators, says Ward. Especially for girls, abuse is often perpetrated by relatives or even within romantic relationships, so it is critical for parents to be vigilant about who their children spend time with and their reactions to these people.

The way forward

According to the report, sexual abuse and maltreatment of children is preventable, but until now, the lack of reliable data has hindered the development of systems needed to protect and support them.

Previous research has almost unfailingly underscored the vulnerability of young girls to sexual abuse, but the vulnerability of young boys to abuse – and the seriousness of “no-contact” sexual abuse – has frequently been overlooked, argue the authors.

Under-reporting also remains a problem, especially among boys. However, there is one major light at the end of the tunnel: the study identified a number of protective factors associated with a reduced risk of sexual victimisation.

“Parents’ knowledge of who young people spend their time with, and how they spend their time and where they go, were significantly associated with a lower likelihood of young people reporting that they had been victims of sexual abuse,” reads the report. “In addition to this, warm and supportive parent-child relationships were also found to be significantly associated with lower risk for sexual victimisation, specifically for girls.”

Beyond the home, the report also argues that there is more work to be done at policy level. A standard and regulated framework must be developed for reporting, referral and management of sexual offences for both state and nongovernmental child protection service providers, and school safety must be integrated into teacher training.

Artz believes schools may have a far bigger role to play than they may realise. Boys, she points out, are at present far less likely to report abuse to an authority figure, and although this will not change overnight, it is worth attempting to provide more supportive systems for abused children.

“This is not a one-solution issue,” she points out. But, she adds, it’s essential to create safe spaces for children outside of those provided, theoretically, by legislation.

South Africa battles with a critically overburdened care system: IOL previously reported that there were fewer than 750 social workers caring for over a million children -- up, at least, from 2012’s count of 365. Schools, as well, are taking strain, where many are severely under-resourced and face violence, teacher absenteeism and other daily crises.

“Caring for the carers” is a significant challenge, says Artz, and the lack of support for social workers, teachers and other potential guardians currently makes it difficult for children to report abuse safely. “There needs to be confidence in the system that something will happen if abuse is reported,” she says.

Artz doesn’t believe that the fragile state of the education system should discourage efforts to strengthen children’s support systems, however. “There are spaces where this can be done,” she says, citing the National School Safety Framework as well as Life Orientation classes, which she believes can be an effective tool if teachers are trained and equipped to use them to greater effect.

There is already comprehensive legislation in place to protect children and deal with sexual offenders, she adds. What is needed now is user-friendly protocols and “a really simple information and referral process”.

“The complexities of the legal system can be overwhelming. We don’t need teachers to be able to recite the Sexual Offences Act or the Children’s Act. We need five simple steps that teachers can take when abuse is reported.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the role of caring communities, she adds. “We have to rely on all people who have contact with children to be vigilant. It’s every adult’s responsibility.” 

Written by Marelise van der Merwe for Daily Maverick. Republished with kind permission. Photo by PublicDomainPictures.net.

A version of this story also appeared on The Guardian.

'Optimus Study: Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa' was conducted by Lillian Artz, Associate Professor and Director of the Gender, Health & Justice Research Unit in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UCT; Patrick Burton, Executive Director of the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention; Catherine L Ward, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at UCT; Lezanne Leoschut, Research Director at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention; Joanne Phyfer, researcher at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention; Sam Lloyd, a researcher at the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention; and Reshma Kassanjee, a consultant in the Department of Statistical Sciences at UCT.

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