Now's the time to make SA safer for our kids

A new study details the extent of child sexual abuse, while giving us a renewed chance to prevent it, write Lillian Artz, Patrick Burton and Susan Bissell

A new study, to be released on Wednesday, provides the first comprehensive picture of the extent of child sexual abuse across South Africa. This information will enable policymakers to finally make thorough, targeted plans to protect the country’s youth.

The study reveals that sexual abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents is widespread, and reinforces the need for government to take effective action, now. One in three children have experienced some form of sexual abuse or exploitation.

The personal cost of this abuse to the lives of young people – and hence, to the nation – is devastating, and can last a lifetime.

Research has shown that sexual violence in childhood and adolescence can lead to a range of mental health and behavioural difficulties, including substance abuse, risky sexual behaviour and other problems that intersect with national concerns such as the HIV epidemic, violence and obesity.

Doctors can pinpoint the effects of violence in childhood when examining the developing brain – which is most vulnerable in infancy, and again in adolescence.

Children who have been abused are less likely to succeed at school and be employed in good jobs, and more likely to come into conflict with the law – all of which are costs to national development.

We finally have a chance to change this.

The costs to society of child sexual abuse and maltreatment are thought to be high on every level: financially, systemically and personally.

Financially, consider the findings of a 2014 study by auditors KPMG on the economic effects of violence against women in South Africa: it cost between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion for the 2012/13 year alone. Hence, the cost of child maltreatment to the economy must be at least as large.

Systemically, justice, health, education and welfare-related departments – as well as nongovernmental service providers – are affected by high case loads, limited resources and the absence of operational processes that ensure comprehensive child protection and childcare services over the short and long term.

Many studies point to the vulnerability of young girls to sexual abuse. This one shows that boys and girls are equally vulnerable to sexual abuse and maltreatment.

The inclusion of boys with regard to reporting and investigation practices, psychosocial support and preventive services, as well as health and legal responses, is critical. There is some way to go to ensure that the vulnerability of boys is fully recognised.

For boys, gender norms often make admitting they are victims of violence and seeking help difficult, if not impossible. International research shows that affected boys who disclose their abuse do so, on average, 22 years after the assault.

That is 10 years later than women. Rarely, especially in lower- and middle-income countries, do girls or boys receive the support programmes they sorely need.

Through its laws and ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, South Africa has committed to addressing child abuse.

There has, until now, been no data to inform the successes or failures of these policies. The new data change this and give us the information we need to design, implement and monitor targeted interventions.

This is not just a national problem. World governments are taking note of the problem – and recognising that it is preventable. We are learning more about how to stop and respond to this abuse, and seeing an unprecedented opportunity for change.

A clear sign of this change is the creation of the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children, formed to realise the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals and a world in which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation.

In South Africa, child protection services need to be resourced adequately to investigate each reported case of maltreatment, and to support the children and families involved.

The justice and medicolegal services need better resourcing, so that cases can move fast to resolution. South Africans have a chance now to take action – or fail another generation of children.

Artz is director of the Gender Health and Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Burton is executive director of the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention. Bissell leads the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children

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