Sex Abuse of Girls Is Stubborn Scourge in Africa
Menja Rahamtanirima, 5, who said an uncle abused her, with her mother, Domoima, and brother in Antananarivo. Her mother pressed charges.
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
SAMBAVA, Madagascar — Thirty miles outside this down-at-the-heels seaside town, Justin Betombo tends his vanilla plants and cheers the local soccer team as if he had not a care in the world. And in fact, what was once his greatest worry has been almost magically lifted from his shoulders.
A SUSPECT GOES FREE Justin Betombo denied his niece Kenia’s accusation. He was freed after convincing a prosecutor that he had falsely confessed after a police beating.
In the local prosecutor’s office, a file filled with accusations that he had sodomized his 9-year-old niece has vanished.
Mr. Betombo was arrested in 2003 after the girl, Kenia, said he had savagely assaulted her. The police obtained his confession, which he later recanted, and a doctor’s certificate that Kenia had been sexually violated, rendering her incontinent and anorexic. Twice they sent the case file to the prosecutor.
There matters ended. Mr. Betombo attended one hearing in the prosecutor’s office, but Kenia’s parents say they were not told about it. The records are nowhere to be found. And Mr. Betombo walked away a free man. Kenia’s parents, distressed by what they saw as a travesty of justice, asked that her name be published, hoping that her case would set an example.
Among sub-Saharan Africa’s children, such stories are disturbingly common. Even as this region races to adopt many of the developed world’s norms for children, including universal education and limits on child labor, one problem — child sexual abuse — remains stubbornly resistant to change.
In much of the continent, child advocates say, perpetrators are shielded by the traditionally low status of girls, a lingering view that sexual abuse should be dealt with privately, and justice systems that constitute obstacle courses for victims. Data is sparse and sexual violence is notoriously underreported. But South African police reports give an inkling of the sweep of child victimization. In the 12 months ending in March 2005, the police reported more than 22,000 cases of child rape. In contrast, England and Wales, with nine million more people than South Africa, reported just 13,300 rapes of women and girls in the most recent 12-month period.
“The prevalence of child rape in South Africa goes from really, really high to astronomically high,” said Dr. Rachel Jewkes, a specialist on sexual violence with South Africa’s Medical Research Council.
Africa is not unique in its high rates of abuse. While a survey of nine countries last year by the World Health Organization found the highest incidence of child sexual abuse in Namibia — more than one in five women there reported being sexually abused before age 15 — it also found frequent abuse in Peru, Japan and Brazil, among other nations. Relatives are frequent perpetrators in Africa, as in much of the world. But this continent’s children face added risks, especially at school. Half of Malawian schoolgirls surveyed in 2006 said male teachers or classmates had touched them in a sexual manner without their permission.
The number of abuse cases is rising in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and other African countries, statistics show. Whether that means more children are being victimized or more are coming forward — or both — is impossible to determine, experts say.
Researchers cite various reasons that abuse is so common: poverty, which makes it harder for parents to keep children safe; a legacy of violent, oppressed societies, and cultural mores that allow offenders to escape criminal punishment, often by marrying their victims or compensating their victims’ families.
But, ultimately, said Dr. Jewkes, of the Medical Research Council, the vast gap between the status of men and boys and that of women and girls explains much of the climate of relative tolerance. “If I had to put my finger on one overriding issue, it would be gender inequality,” she said.
Increasingly, African nations are openly acknowledging the problem, partly because AIDS has made children more likely to fall ill or die from sexual abuse. Campaigns against abuse are under way in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.
The impact is apparent in Zimbabwe, where a child rights group estimates that at least 2,000 child rape victims have died of AIDS since 1998. “Literally for the first time in Zimbabwe’s history, child abuse is no longer a taboo subject,” said James Elder, a Unicef spokesman.
That said, the response is minuscule compared with the extent of abuse, said Pamela Shifman, a child protection specialist at Unicef headquarters in New York. “We see huge numbers of girls affected,” she said. “These crimes are still treated as the fault or the problem of the victim.”
- U.N. Relief Official Condemns Use of Rape in African Wars (June 22, 2005)
- For Africa’s Deaf and Blind, AIDS Is an Unknown Language (March 28, 2004)
- Charges Against Foreign Priests Raise Issue of Supervision (June 27, 2002)
- World Briefing | United Nations: Awaiting Evidence In Sex-Abuse Case (March 2, 2002)