Rise in child sex abuse

2010-10-03 12:14

Kabazi - Emma has gone to court every month for two years to try and prove that a neighbour raped her mentally disabled 14-year-old daughter.

The process is excruciating. Evidence went missing. The court file disappeared. Officials mock and ignore her. But the illiterate single mother perseveres, encouraged by a new Kenyan government helpline started two-and-a-half years ago to fight child abuse.

In Kenya and a handful of other African countries that have collected data, hospitals, police, the government and aid agencies are getting increased reports of child sex abuse. It's unclear whether more abuse is happening or more people are coming forward, but the numbers may be the first sign that new initiatives such as helplines, legislation and police units specializing in investigating sex abuse are starting to work.

"People often didn't understand what constituted sexual violence, where to go or who to tell," said Dr Jill Keesbury, who worked in Kenya and is now in Zambia for the Population Council, a global aid group focusing on reproductive health.

Activists believe most cases of child sex abuse in Africa are not reported, and few countries even track it. But in the past 10 years, the number of African countries offering a hotline to report child abuse has risen from four to 14. Unicef says Madagascar, South Africa and Zimbabwe have all passed laws to address sexual offences, and eight other countries, including Angola, Burundi, and Ethiopia, are forming strategies aimed at stopping violence against women and children.


Perhaps as a result, Ghana's domestic violence unit received 1 110 reports of child rape in 2009, up from 154 a decade ago. Sierra Leone's Family Support Unit received 1 024 reports of sexual assault last year, up from 192 in its first year of operations in 2001; an officer said most cases involved children. Uganda saw increases in child sex abuse reports, to 12 300 in 2007 from 7 257 in 2003.

Only in South Africa, which has long had strong victim support, courts and child rights legislation, are reports of abuse declining, from 25 428 in 2006-07 to 20 141 in 2008-09.

Emma, who requested her full name be withheld to protect her family's privacy, called the help line after a neighbour raped her daughter in March 2008, she said.

"It would not have happened 10 years ago. I would not have brought the case," she said, sitting in front of the wooden shack where she and her daughter Esther live. "They told me who to talk to and what to do."

Between the green stalks of the corn plants, the shining tin roof of the house of Esther's alleged rapist can be seen. As her daughter chuckled and cooed nearby, Emma said the man's wealthy mother taunted her, saying she had paid off everyone in Kenya's notoriously corrupt judiciary and the case would never be resolved.

Court file went missing

"She said, 'My son will never go to jail because of your retarded daughter.' ... She says she will take our land to pay for their costs," Emma said quietly.

At first, Emma had high hopes for justice. Kenya had passed the Sexual Offences Act a year earlier, substantially strengthening penalties for child sex abuse. The alleged rapist was arrested, although released on bail. A doctor examined Esther and certified she had been raped.

Then the problems began. The case dragged on for over a year. The doctor was transferred. Police lost the evidence. A year ago, the court file went missing.

Emma attends court once a month to ensure they will not issue a judgment in her absence. She sold the family's only cow and now works eight days a month as a farm labourer to pay the bus fare. Her face furrows with worry as she talks, and the arms she wraps around her daughter are tough but thin.

Kenya's Child Legal Action Network offers legal aid to sue abusers. The group says problems like Emma's are depressingly familiar. The organisation dealt with just over a dozen cases of child sex abuse in 1999; it helped 276 such children last year. Each case records a file number, the child's age, and relationship to abuser. Then comes "challenges." 

Corrupt cops

The new legislation, the help line and the blossoming number of aid groups put child rights in Kenya ahead of most countries in Africa, says Keesbury. Kenya's few convictions have recently resulted in heavy sentences, including the first life sentence for child rape handed down last year. The courts do not keep records of sex abuse cases separately, but the legal action network estimates that just over a third of cases where a judgment is handed down result in a conviction, usually of several years. 

Ahmed Hussein, the head of Kenya's Children's Services, blames widespread drug and alcohol abuse among families crowded together in slums. Kenya police records show that child rapes increased from 1,067 in 2005 to 1,849 in 2008, but Hussein says the increase has in fact been much larger since he took his position six years ago. Hussein says many families choose not to involve the notoriously corrupt police.