One in three young people in South Africa have experienced some form of sexual abuse during their lives, according to a new Optimus Study, the first-ever nationally representative study of child maltreatment in South Africa.
The “Optimus Study: Sexual victimisation
of children in South Africa” was commissioned by the UBS Optimus Foundation and
conducted by researchers from the University of Cape Town and the Centre for
Justice and Crime Prevention. The findings indicate that both boys and girls
are equally vulnerable to sexual abuse over their lifetime, although the form
of abuse often differs.
Tip of the iceberg?
According to the study, 784,967
young people in South Africa are likely to have been the victims of sexual
abuse by the age of 17. This number would fill the Soccer City Stadium in
Johannesburg eight times. 351,214 of these cases of sexual abuse would have
occurred in 2015 alone.
The sexual abuse and maltreatment of children is preventable, but until now, a lack of data has hindered the development of systems needed to protect and support children.
While previous research
has almost unfailingly underscored the particular vulnerability of young girls
to sexual abuse, the study found that boys were at least as likely as girls to
report some form of sexual abuse, but
that girls are more likely to experience “contact sexual abuse” than boys, who
reported higher levels of “no-contact” sexual abuse. Both forms of abuse,
however, can be equally harmful and both should be taken equally seriously.
But when it comes to
reporting incidents of sexual abuse to authorities, the study found that young
people were unlikely to report these cases. Only 31% of girls and no boys
reported sexual abuse to the police. Young males are especially disinclined to
report, across all categories of abuse.
reduces risk of victimisation
The study identifies a
number of protective factors associated with a reduced risk of sexual
victimisation. “Parents’ knowledge of who young people spend their time with, and
how they spend their time and where they go, were significantly associated with
a lower likelihood of young people reporting that they had been victims of
sexual abuse,” the report says. “In addition to this, warm and supportive
parent-child relationships were also found to be significantly associated with
lower risk for sexual victimisation, specifically for girls.”
stop sexual assault of young people in South Africa
The report offers
recommendations to stop the sexual abuse of young people and highlights that
more still needs to be done on a policy level. South Africa should move towards
developing a standard and regulated framework for the reporting, referral and
management of sexual offences for both state and non-governmental child
protection service providers.
This protocol should be supported and reinforced by existing laws and regulations, as well as the research evidence. The lack of such a protocol now means that too many children who experience abuse face delays in justice and do not get the care that they need.
1. To strengthen the role
that schools play, school safety should be integrated into teacher training, as
well as the integration into schools of evidence-based life skills curricula that directly target issues relating to sex, gender and violence.
2. Substance abuse
treatment programmes can play a significant role in preventing sexual abuse of
young people. “Since parental substance misuse is associated with sexual abuse
of children, one key preventive strategy is to make substance abuse treatment
programmes far more widely available and accessible than they are at present.”
3. Programmes that promote
better parent-teen relationships should be made widely available to help foster
good relations between parents and teens.
The study combined the
expertise of leading researchers in the fields of crime and violence
prevention, gender studies, psychology and statistical sciences – all working
together to provide fresh perspectives and a wider scope of results on the
subject of childhood sexual abuse in South Africa.
This is the first-ever nationally representative study of child maltreatment in South Africa, giving accurate prevalence data for the first time. Information is presented, for instance, on boys’ experiences of sexual abuse; the preventability of child abuse; and the hurdles faced by agencies dealing with the maltreatment of children.
The “Optimus Study: Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa”, together with two previous Optimus Studies focused on Switzerland and China, will help inform the debate and shape the direction of child-protection efforts.
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