/ 5 June 2016

[From our archives] Four frightening facts about child sexual abuse in South Africa

Children must be encouraged to stay fit and active
Children must be encouraged to stay fit and active

The University of Cape Town released South Africa’s first study on the national annual incidence of child sexual abuse in the country last week. Conducted by the university’s Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town, the research has revealed ground-breaking information on the extent of these crimes committed against local youth. Here are four facts you should know: 

1. Fact: 12 abused children may be sitting in your child’s classroom right now

Proof: One in three young people report a sexually abusive experience in their lifetime. A total of 784 967 South Africans have been abused sexually at least once by the age of 17. Almost half of these cases occurred in 2015 alone. Government data show there are 40 children in an average classroom in the country.

Expert comment: “The enormity of these impacts on the education system not only has consequences for the classroom environment, but raises questions about school preparedness to manage the impact of sexual abuse within the learning context.”

2. Fact: Boys are equally as vulnerable as girls – if not more 

Proof: Boys reported higher lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse (36.8%) than girls (33.9%) unlike previously thought. However, the nature of the abuse is often different. Girls are more likely to experience contact sexual abuse, where they are physically touched, and boys are more likely to experience exposure abuse, where the child is forced to see sexual images or incidents. Males are twice as likely as females to be “forced to look at someone’s private parts, forced to watch them masturbate or to view nude pictures or pornographic videos”.

Expert comment: “Boys are more likely to externalise this abuse by victimising others – and this is not restricted to sexual offending, it can include other forms of victimising behaviour such as bullying or aggressive behaviour – while girls who have been sexually abused tend to internalise this behaviour, engaging in activities that are harmful to themselves such as risky sexual behaviour or substance abuse. They are also prone to anxiety and depression.”

3. Fact: Child on child abuse is rife in both urban and rural areas   

Proof: More youth from cities (34.9%) reported incidents of abuse than those living in rural areas (26.9%). But child on child abuse is one area where children from rural and urban settings report similar rates. Boys in rural areas (10.6%) experienced much higher levels of other children making them do sexual things against their will than females in rural areas (6.0%) compared to 11.1% and 8.5% for boys and girls in cities respectively. 

Expert comment:  “We need to be careful not to criminalise, negatively sanction or create moral panic about sexual development. Children may be unaware that their sexual behaviours and interactions are in fact considered abusive in adult or even legal terms. Our response(s) to this behaviour is important to the healthy sexual development of children, both those who have engaged in sexual acts on the basis of sexual curiosity as well as to those who have committed more coercive sexual acts with another child or adolescent.”

SA boys more at risk of sexual abuse than girls – study. Read our story here.

4. Fact: One in 10 children who have experienced sexual abuse by a known adult, had this experience four or more times.

Proof: Children reported higher rates of adults they know abusing them sexually (8.2%) than adults they don’t know (5.5%). Half of the young people reporting abuse by an older person they know say that the incidents happened more than once. But, 90% of those who report abuse by an adult they have never met say that the incident happened only once. 

It is slightly more likely for a young South African to experience only one incident of sexual abuse in their lifetime but 40% experience repeated events. 

Expert comment: “[Child abuse experiences may be once-off but are often repeated, and can change over time]. A child may, for instance, experience sexual touching by an uncle at the age of five, sexual harassment at the age of 12 by peers, made to engage in sexual touching with a boyfriend at the age of 15, and being forced to have sex with someone older than her at the age of 17. Alternatively, a child may be subject to ongoing sexual abuse by the same adult over the course of his lifetime.”

All expert comment quotes and statistics are from the Optimus report.

[This story was originally published on 5 June 2016]