Focus on child sexual abuse

How does one begin to understand and respond to the high level and brutal nature of sexual abuse of young children in South Africa and neighbouring countries? What is it about our society that renders so many children vulnerable to abuse? What induces perpetrators from all walks of life to sexually abuse young children, even infants, often with appalling violence?

Such are the questions that open The Sexual Abuse of Young Children in Southern Africa, a groundbreaking book from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), funded by the Ford Foundation.

The book, published by HSRC Press, pulls together the efforts of about 20 experts in various sectors – including service providers, therapists, children’s advocates, and members of the research community – to summarise and evaluate the different branches of knowledge about the problem of prepubescent children in southern Africa.

Synthesising research
As the editors – Linda Richter, Andy Dawes and Craig Higson-Smith – say in the first chapter, "this volume is the first attempt to synthesise southern African research, treatment and policy literature" on the topic.

The authors write in the introduction: "In time, our various endeavours will contribute to advances in our understanding of child sexual abuse and to improve care and services for the many affected children on the subcontinent.... [This book], combining the wisdom of many people, working in a variety of sectors, is one part of ensuring that this will occur".

The authors explain that although much has been written on the sexual abuse of children in southern Africa, much of this material is unpublished, contained in confidential reports, out of print – in short, unavailable to those who could draw the most valuable insights from it.

Bringing info to the public
This book aims to bring such information into the public arena as a tool for therapists, lawyers, counsellors, caregivers, law enforcers, the media, policy makers and anyone else who is involved in fighting child sexual abuse, raising public awareness of it or assisting its victims.

The volume is organised into five broad sections, each comprising several chapters:

  • Section I: Talking about child sexual abuse. In Chapter Three, for instance, co-authors William Bird and Nicola Spurr examine news reports of the infamous "Baby Tshepang" rape case in Upington in October 2001. "These reports play a positive role in drawing our attention to abuse, but the sensationalism that often accompanies these reports is deeply problematic," the authors say.
  • Section II: Understanding child sexual abuse, including cultural issues such as gender roles, school-based violence, child trafficking and the myth that sex with a virgin can cure HIV/Aids. In Chapter Seven, Rachel Jewkes argues that the virgin cleansing myth is not a major influence in child rape, since most men who perpetrate such abuse probably do not even know their HIV status.
  • Section III: Legal and policy responses, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Children’s Charter and various African national constitutions and their practical applications. Case studies include the story of two child rape survivors whose ordeal was prolonged by the lack of support they received through the police and justice systems.
  • Section IV: Clinical and therapeutic responses. "While there are far too few facilities to assist abused children and their families," the authors write, "those that do exist make a very significant contribution to abused children". This section examines community-based initiatives such as the Soweto Child Abuse Liaison Group, founded by Mama Chrissie Mkhasibe and staff at Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital, the Teddy Bear Clinic in Gauteng, the Family Support Trust in Zimbabwe and how the recent civil war victimised women and children in Mozambique.
  • Section V: Reflections and conclusions from the various chapters. In the penultimate chapter, Ann Levett, who produced some of the first South African work in this field during the 1980s, challenges the reader to debate and take apart the common assumptions about child sexual abuse – in other words, to search for new approaches to an old problem.

Child abuse facts
According to a press release issued by the HSRC, child sexual abuse is not just rape. It includes fondling, voyeurism, and exposure to and participation in child pornography and child prostitution.

All cases of the rape of young children involve force. It can involve the perpetrator hitting, hurting, smothering or threatening the child while forcing penetration. Usually, the younger the child, the more serious the physical injury.

Sexual abuse and harassment are major problems in South African schools. One of the important causes of this problem is a strong societal belief that women are subordinate to men. This increases the risk of sexual domination by men in the home, school and community. To reduce sexual violence in schools, a culture of respect for students, clear rules and clear consequences for perpetrators needs to be instilled.

Sexual Abuse of Young Children in Southern Africa is published by HSRC Press and is available from leading booksellers countrywide, or from the online bookshop at

- (Health24)

Read more:
Signs of sexual abuse
Protecting your child from sexual abuse

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