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STUDIES ON CHILDREN

 

How communities perceive sexual abuse and the risk of HIV infection

How do communities that should be able to protect children against sexual abuse perceive this crime and the resultant threat to the mental and physical health of their children? Do they just turn a blind eye? And what can be done about it? Alicia Davids presented findings of an HSRC study on community perceptions of the risk factors of children who are sexually abused at the AIDS Impact Conference in Gabarone in October.

In the year 2005/06 there were 54 962 reported cases of rape and attempted rape of women and girls, with this crime believed to be under-reported. A study of women in antenatal care in Soweto found that the first sexual intercourse was coerced in 97% of children aged 0-12 years, 27% aged 13-14 years and 9% aged 15 years and older in 2004. Another study in Gauteng found that children experience multiple perpetrator abuse: 15% of children aged 0-11 years and 18% of children aged 12-17 experienced sexual abuse by more than one perpetrator.

But keep in mind that child sexual abuse is not just rape, and that it includes fondling, voyeurism, and exposure to, and participation in, child pornography and child prostitution, and thus the figures are higher. Children are exposed on a daily basis to risky situations that increase the likelihood of HIV transmission within their homes, schools and communities.

The study format

The findings presented at the conference were derived from eight focus group discussions (109 participants) on the topic of child sexual abuse and formed part of a larger national study that involved 51 focus groups from all nine provinces.

Participants were chosen with the assistance of relevant gate keepers in various community and institutional settings such as villages, informal settlements, schools and colleges, universities, religious organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), faith-based organisations (FBOs), youth groups, cultural groups and so forth. While five of the focus groups were conducted with adults aged 18 years and older. Three of the focus groups were conducted with teenagers aged 14-17 years.

Most of the participants stated that child sexual abuse is pervasive in the communities in which they live and that the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are either close family friends or immediate relatives of the children.

Ethical approval was obtained from the HSRC's Research Ethics Committee (REC) and the USA's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Institutional Review Boards. Participants that were included in the study gave informed consent and were assured of anonymity and confidentiality.

Kinds of abuse

Most of the participants stated that child sexual abuse is pervasive in the communities in which they live and that the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are either close family friends or immediate relatives of the children.

A typical answer, coming from an adult in KwaZulu-Natal was, ‘Yes, children are abused in the form of being smacked and raped. In some instances parents know but cannot speak out for the fear of their lives.'

Respondents defined child sexual abuse in terms of children being physically forced to have sex or do sex acts with an older person. They know it happens because of what they see and hear in their communities.

Who are the perpetrators ?

Participants stated that the perpetrators of child sexual abuse are fathers, grandfathers, or the mother's boyfriends, usually someone that is close to the family:

‘...when the mother works and maybe the father is at home...the father is drunk and the child is at home. The father must look after the child. Now, when the father is tipsy, then the father comes to the girl, like an older person...he bribes the child now and says, "You must not tell mummy, you must keep quiet then I will buy you sweets...it's our secret - between the two of us". You get this happening in the community.‘ (teenager, Northern Cape)

Although participants stated that child sexual abuse is commonly perpetrated by men, they also stated that women can also sexually abuse children, although this was not commonly heard of in their community.

They referred to neglect as the most perpetrated form of child abuse by women in their communities, which increases the risk of children being sexually abused. Children are left with neighbours or siblings, sometimes with no adult supervision at all.

Why is it allowed to occur?

The most concerning factor was that the perpetrator is frequently the breadwinner on which families depend for financial support in already difficult, poverty-stricken circumstances. This has huge implications in the reporting of cases of child sexual abuse.

Silence and shame

Embarrassment, the shame of being labelled and cast out are some of the fears families face as a result of reporting child sexual abuse. Families resort to dealing with the situation in the household, often leaving it unresolved. This has negative implications and consequences for the child that has been sexually abused. A teenager in the Western Cape stated:

‘You do hear about some homes where this happens, but people hide these things, they are embarrassed to talk about them because it means the woman of that home will have to leave the husband, or she will have to report him to the police and the community will know everything.'

Although participants stated that child sexual abuse is commonly perpetrated by men, they also stated that women can also sexually abuse children, although this was not commonly heard of in their community.

Police and the justice system

A common perception was that the police and the justice system do not protect sexually abused children. Participants mentioned that police men and women are not equipped with the appropriate skills for assisting children that have been sexually abused. In addition, the respondents said they felt the justice system failed them when sentences for perpetrators were too short.

A teenager from the Free State, said: ‘Sometimes they open a case at the police station and files go missing. The truth never comes out... Also, the police should do their job. If a person is supposed to be sent to jail, they should do that and not release the person after a short time. They should keep a person like that for at least three years in jail so that he can learn a lesson.'

Risk factors

The potential risks for children are many: mental illness, emotional stress and trauma, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection, pregnancy, permanent damage affecting sexual and other relationships for the rest of their lives. One adult in KwaZulu-Natal stated: ‘I think that a child gets damaged and there is a disturbance to their minds. Even if the matter is solved privately or within the family it is not done satisfactorily and the problem remains that of the child's. ‘

What should be done?

From the study it was clear that to adequately address the serious problem of child sexual abuse, interventions need to be developed that would educate and create awareness of child sexual abuse first at the family level, then at the community level, also incorporating police departments and social welfare organisations.

Alicia Davids is PhD research intern in the Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS and Health programme. Co-investigators of the study are Professor Leickness Simbayi Nolusindiso Ncitakalo, and Vuyelwa Mehlomakhulu.