5-year-old victims expected to face their rapists

Sex abuse of girls is prevalent in Africa, where victims' resources are often next to nil.

Published December 2, 2006 12:36AM (EST)

While reading today's New York Times article on child sexual abuse in Africa my stomach engaged in all sorts of Olympic-level gymnastics; in fact, I still don't feel quite right. So, this is your warning: This isn't a fun Friday read.

Earlier this week came Amnesty International's announcement that rape by soldiers and police officers is "endemic" in Nigeria. Now, the Times reports that child sexual abuse plagues the continent as a whole and seems to be on the rise in several African countries. Comprehensive stats are hard to come by, but the Times provides a shocking sampling: In South Africa, police reported more than 22,000 cases of child rape within a 12-month period ending in early 2005. In neighboring Namibia, more than one in five women reports having been sexually abused before age 15; the country has the highest rate of child sex abuse, according to the World Health Organization.

It should go without saying, though, that the number of reported cases is likely only a fraction of actual abuses. Especially so when victims face an unfriendly -- sometimes downright hostile -- justice system. Take the case of Kenia, a 13-year-old from Madagascar, who was made incontinent and had to undergo four years of surgeries after allegedly being raped by her uncle at age 9. Records of her uncle's arrest and subsequent confession have conveniently disappeared; in fact, he's currently free as a bird.

As though victims needed further deterrence from reporting, resources and support are often close to nil. The police station in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, offers victims "little more than an officer behind a typewriter -- no counselors, no video cameras to record testimony, no toy-filled rooms or friendly intermediaries." As the Times notes, even a 5-year-old would be expected to face her attacker. Families wishing to prosecute the attacker also have to produce a minimum of $15 to cover essential medical exams. It's no wonder, then, that most families opt for a monetary settlement with the attacker.

Explanations for why child sex abuse has become such a plague in Africa range from extreme poverty to historically oppressed populations to the accepted practice of victims marrying their attackers. Interesting, too, is the theory that sexism and girls' low social status are to blame for institutional and societal tolerance of sexual abuse. Dr. Jewkes, of the Medical Research Council, said, "If I had to put my finger on one overriding issue, it would be gender inequality."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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