1 in 3 young South Africans sexually abused


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.

Good parenting 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.”

Recommendations to 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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