Levels of child sexual abuse in South Africa even higher than activist claimed

02 June 2017 | Story Africa Check. Researched by Ina Skosana.

A South African activist said in radio interview that a quarter of girls and 17% of boys would be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. This turned out to be an underestimate.

Violence against women and children has dominated South African newspaper headlines and radio chat shows.

Recently, an activist told a talk show host that 25% of South African girls will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18, compared to 17% of boys.

This was to show that boys too are at risk. Activist Rees Mann was discussing a newspaper exposé about alleged sexual abuse at an all-boys school in Johannesburg.

“One in 4 females will be sexually abused before the age of 18 and one in 6 boys will be sexually abused,” Mann, founder of the advocacy organisation South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abusetold Radio 702’s Xolani Gwala.

Is this the current situation in South Africa?

Mainly based on American sources

South Africa’s minister of home affairs, Hlengiwe Buhle Mkhize, signs a pledge in support of child protection in Langa, Cape Town, in May 2017. Photo: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

To support his statement, Mann emailed Africa Check a number of links to various websites, most of which were American.

His statistic for the percentage of men who are sexually abused by the time they turn 18 was mainly based on estimates by 1in6, a US non-governmental organisation that provides support and counselling services to male survivors of sexual assault and their families.

According to the organisation, “at least one in 6 [American] men have had unwanted sexual experiences, including abuse and assault”.

The organisation attributes this number to the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Mann didn’t provide a source for his estimate that one in 4 girls will be sexually abused by the age of 18. 

New local study provides insight

Research on the extent of child sexual abuse in South Africa is scarce and where information is available, the numbers vary widely.

However, a study conducted between September 2013 and February 2015 has provided new insight into the sexual abuse of children in South Africa.

The Optimus Study was conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town’s  Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit as well as its psychology department.

“This is the first-ever nationally representative study of the extent of sexual violence against children in South Africa,” Professor Catherine Ward, head of the psychology department, told Africa Check

Researchers asked 4,086 school children and 5,631 children out of school – all between the ages of 15 and 17 – about various forms of abuse they had experienced.

Definitions of abuse vary

Before 2007, South Africa had a very narrow definition of rape. If this definition of rape was used in previous studies, then the level of reported sexual assault would be lower. (Note: Read our guide to rape statistics for more information.)

“The definition we used included a far wider definition of sexual abuse than has been used before, but our definition is in line with the best and newest science globally,” said Ward.

The study made a distinction between penetrative and non-penetrative sexual abuse.

Questions asked by Optimus Study researchers:

Sexual victimisation with physical contact:
  1. Did a grown-up (adult) you know touch your private parts when they shouldn’t have or make you touch their private parts or force you to have sex?
  2. Did a grown-up (adult) you did not know touch your private parts when they shouldn’t have, make you touch their private parts or force you to have sex?
Sexual victimisation without physical contact:
  1. Did another child or teen make you do sexual things against your will?
  2. Did anyone try to force you to have sex, that is sexual intercourse of any kind, even if it didn’t happen?
  3. Did anyone make you look at their private parts by using force or surprise, force you to watch them masturbate, view nude pictures or pornographic videos (pictures and videos about sex), or by “flashing” you?
  4. Did anyone hurt your feelings by saying or writing something sexual about you or your body?
  5. Other than previous incidents you may have already mentioned, at any time in your life, did you do sexual things with anyone 18 or older, even things you both wanted?

If a child answered yes to any of these questions, they were considered to have been sexually abused.

35% of young people sexually abused

The study found that 35.4% of the young people interviewed in schools had been sexually abused at some point in their lives. In comparison, 26.3% of those interviewed in their homes said they had ever experienced sexual abuse.

Ward said: “Young people interviewed in school may have felt freer to disclose sexual abuse than those interviewed in their homes, and therefore these figures are higher.”

The study found that at least as many boys (36.8%) as girls (33.9%) reported some form of sexual abuse.

Extrapolating this figure, the study estimated that at least 784,967 young people aged 15 to 17 in South Africa have been sexually abused.

Conclusion: Level of child sexual abuse even higher than claimed

Following allegations of sexual abuse at an all-boys school in Johannesburg, activist Rees Mann said in a radio interview that one in 4 girls and one in 6 boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18.

But Mann’s figures are an underestimate, one of the lead researchers of the first nationally representative study on child sexual abuse said. The study found that one in 3 South African children reported some form of sexual abuse by their 17th birthday.

Africa Check a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Twitter @AfricaCheck and www.africacheck.org.


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