“My uncle is there when I get home from fetching water, I’m happy there, hyper and playing the fool. But as I pull on the handle and turn the key, I feel a sense of dread and fear fill me. I have a secret, a dark one. A secret I’ve never told anyone. Every day when I come home, he waits till I’m alone. Then he’ll rape me and threaten to kill me if I share with anyone. I have a secret and I’m not telling anyone,” said Nomathemba Ncube in a poetry and speech newsletter meant to celebrate the Day of the African Child (DAC).
The newsletter, which is also meant to create awareness on children’s rights was initiated by Justice for Children’s Trust (JCT).
In their various speeches and poems, children called for more action to prevent and end child sexual abuse (CSA).
According to statistics, more than 100 girls are sexually abused every day — but these statistics are just a tip of the iceberg.
Abuse of children has only been worsened by Covid-19. In a matter of months, Covid-19 has upended the lives of children and families across the globe. Quarantine efforts such as school closures and movement restrictions, while considered necessary, are disrupting children’s routines and support systems. They are also adding new stressors on caregivers who may have to forgo work.
A common error about CSA is that it is unusual and perpetrated by outsiders on children in deprived areas. But facts have proven that, CSA is a common occurrence that results in damage to plenty of children, boys and girls alike, in huge and minor societies, and across a range of cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.
However, cases of CSA are frequently swept under the rug. In addition to being developmentally weak, children are often manipulated to take the blame for the abuse.
“Children who are sexually abused face extreme trauma. When young girls are hurt and sexualised by adults they may learn secrecy, shame, that sex measures self-worth, their boundaries don’t matter, no one can be trusted and the world is not safe. Extreme trauma also puts this population at increased risk for involvement in sex work,” said Sithobekile Sithole, a JCT legal representative.
She added: “To survive the trauma of abuse, children learn coping strategies like denial, self-blame, unconscious re-enactment of unresolved traumatic experiences and normalising sexual exploitation. Most sexual abuse is preventable, but we can’t put the responsibility on children.
We need to educate adults on how to recognise the signs of sexual abuse, how to react responsibly if they see them and most importantly, how they can take concrete steps to prevent it from happening in the first place.”
Research suggests that most girls and women were sexually abused as children.
Sexually abused children are said to be 28 times more likely to be arrested later in life for engaging in sex work than those who were not abused.
At a time when Africans were marking DAC on 16 June, with the theme centred on examining the elements of a child-friendly justice system, including the application of a child rights-based approach and the use of principles of children’s rights as tools for realising access to a child-friendly justice system in Africa, concerns have been raised on how abuse of children can be dealt with during Covid-19 in order to protect victims.
Recently, a United Nations (UN) rights expert warned that a reported surge in violence against children and new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse during Covid-19 lockdowns would have lifelong implications for millions worldwide.
Fatima Singhateh, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, said between 42 million and 66 million children worldwide are already in a precarious socio-economic situation.
“The damage to millions of children will be devastating if we are slow in mobilising child protection services for early detection and prevention,” Singhateh said.
“Comprehensive rapid and responsive child protection measures are paramount to assess the magnitude of this crisis on the most vulnerable children, including those who are refugees, displaced, homeless, migrants, minorities, slum-dwellers, living with disabilities, living on the streets, living in refugee settlements, and in institutions,” she added.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), hundreds of millions of children around the world will likely face increasing threats to their safety and wellbeing – including mistreatment, gender-based violence, exploitation, social exclusion and separation from caregivers – because of actions taken to contain the spread of the Covid pandemic.
“In many ways, Covid 19 is now reaching children and families far beyond those it directly infects,” warned Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection. “There are more cases of children being sexually abused, hence the protection risks for children are mounting,” he said.
Research indicates that increased rates of abuse and exploitation of children have occurred during previous public health emergencies.
School closures during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, for example, contributed to spikes in child labor, neglect, sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, cases of teenage pregnancy more than doubled to 14,000 from before the outbreak.
As such, Sithole said they were working hard to make sure children feel free to report cases of abuse.
“We are joining the rest of the African continent in commemorating DAC. However, this does not mean we only raise awareness against abuse of children on the 16th of June. We campaign against child abuse every day. Due to Covid 19 we have come up with strategies to help curb child abuse.
“We reach out to children through the use of social media platforms. Through WhatsApp we send child friendly information about Covid 19 and other child protection issues. We use Facebook and Twitter to bring awareness to child rights issues. We also endeavor to have virtual meetings via Zoom with child representatives or child led organisations. We are able to assist the children facing difficult circumstances, so those who are able, please give us a call,” said Sithole.