"Child sex abuse is on the rise"
By: Lindsey Arkley
This article was originally published on page 1 of Pretoria News on September 23, 2004
Child abuse in South Africa is on the increase while the average age of sex abuse victims is getting lower.
In a damning indictment of the authorities, the national co-ordinator of Childline SA has told an international conference that the response of South Africa to the crisis remains poor.
Inconsistent and unco-ordinated responses to cases of infant sexual abuse were failing the victims, allowing perpetrators to avoid prosecution and leaving innocent carers distraught, Joan van Niekerk said in Brisbane at an International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect.
In her paper, she released the findings of a detailed study of 45 cases of children aged between 18 months and five years who were sexually abused between January last year and April this year.
The cases, reported in Gauteng, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape, featured a mix of urban and rural children.
Key findings of the study included that in most cases the perpetrators were known to the children.
"Of great concern is that not a single of these 45 cases has had a positive outcome in terms of our criminal justice process," Van Niekerk said. "There are a whole lot of possible reasons for this, and they also require in-depth study."
One possible reason could be that although most of the children studied had gone for a medical examination, sexual assault investigation kits had generally not been used.
"These kits are quite critical in terms of gathering evidence," she said. "I was not able to explore the reasons why they're not being used. This aspect needs to be investigated."
The study had been launched after Childline SA staff noted that well over half of the child sexual abuse victims presented for therapy were aged under seven years.
"That was a very concerning statistic for us because it shows a decrease in the average age of the sexually abused child," she said.
"We've also noticed a decrease in the average age of the sexual offender. Now about 50 percent of the offenders referred into our treatment programmes are under 18."
In the 45 cases studied, the perpetrators of the abuse ranged in age from seven to 75, Van Niekerk said.
The 45 cases were "just a fraction" of the number of infant abuse cases recorded in South Africa in the study period, she stressed. Childline figures showed they were increasing.
"It is a real increase, because all of these children suffer some form of physical damage," she said. "When you sexually abuse a child under five, and it's a penetrative sexual act, that would not easily go undetected by the care-giver of that child.
"There would be blood on the underwear, the child would be uncomfortable during bathing and toileting, and care-givers would rapidly pick that up."
It was clear from the study that existing child abuse policies and protocols were simply not being applied to the under-five age group, she said. Evidence of this was "an enormous lack of communication" between police, social workers and health professionals involved in particular cases.
"These children do not get a comprehensive service. The likelihood of successful prosecution is thus minimised because the children are dealt with in such a discontinuous way."
Another issue of concern in dealing with the problem of sexual abuse of infants was transmission of HIV and Aids, with two of the children in the study group having become HIV-positive as a result of being assaulted.
The still commonly held false view that sexual intercourse with a virgin could cure HIV and Aids was part of the problem, Van Niekerk said.
"In a recent study done among schoolchildren, 10 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 18 believed that myth," she said.
"With a third of all South African children under 10 already sexually active in some kind of peer sexual activity, sex with a very small child would be the preference for some."
"It's a myth that's really putting children at risk. I think everyone is working very hard to disabuse people of it, but the progress is slow."
There had also been a recent increase in the number of older children reporting sexual abuse, said another speaker at the Brisbane conference, Mollie Kemp.
Compared to other countries South Africa had a comparative lack of resources to deal with child sexual abuse, she said