Protect our children: Stopping the sexual abuse of children

Published on Pambazuka News, by Patricia Daley, April 20, 2011.

Just as we must condemn homophobia and support ‘the rights of consenting individuals to privacy in their sexual relations’, we must also grant far greater attention to the sexual abuse of children, argues Patricia Daley.

… Paedophilia is a crime irrespective of where it is committed. Institutions that take our children should provide a safe environment for them to grow. It would be interesting if the Catholic Church were to set an example in Africa by showing a commitment to investigate and make public such cases rather than seeing such acts as private to the individual (Menya & Liguorip 2011). A start has been made by Bishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, who was reported to have said: ‘I know that the Church in Africa is inflicted by the same scourge’ (Tostevin 2010). 

I would not like to focus this discussion purely on Catholic priests, since school teachers, Anglican and Pentecostal pastors also abuse their powers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many such moral authorities avoid penetrative sex, believing that other forms of sexual activities do not break their moral codes. Newspaper and NGO reports suggest that sexual abuse of school girls is institutionalised in Africa (Katerere 2010; Museka 2010; Foran 2010; Quaicoe & Dibando 2009; Plan-international.org 2008). This is a consequence of the lack of concerted efforts by governments to protect the vulnerable in their institutions.

With respect to those charged to protect the vulnerable, in 2008, the Save the Children Fund published a report on the sexual abuse of children by aid workers and peace-keepers – placed in positions of authority and parading vast material resources amidst the destitution and despair of the locals. According to the report:
‘Significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continue in emergencies, with much of it going unreported. The victims include orphans, children separated from their parents and families, and children in families dependent on humanitarian assistance’ (p. 1).

The multi-country research project revealed abuse conducted by ‘23 humanitarian, peace-keeping and security organizations’ (p. 8). The report noted the efforts being made by the UN to stamp out such practices and argues that a major constraint to further action is the under-reporting of such cases by children and adults. It claims that under-reporting is due to several factors, such as stigmatisation, loss of material assistance provided by perpetrators, threat of retribution and retaliation, lack of effective legal services and lack of faith in response, and not knowing how to report such abuse. There is also the normalisation of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict contexts, such that despite the reported horrors of the rape of women in the DR Congo, there is still an implicit assumption in some quarters that African girls, even in such vulnerable circumstances, have heightened sexuality and are exercising choice and thus power – since they may nab a peace-keeper or NGO worker as a husband.

Orphanages, churches and schools, especially boarding schools, are institutions catering for vulnerable young people. There should be more effective mechanisms whereby those in positions of authority, who violate their responsibility to protect minors, are brought to justice.

The academic and activist debate on sex and sexuality in Africa has to widen to protect the rights of the vulnerable – those who are forced into non-consensual sex – whether adults or children, as well as those adults participating in consensual same-sex relationships. To date, there is a glaring gap in academic research on the sexual abuse of children, whether historical or contemporary (Lalor 2004). Such research is needed urgently, especially when more and more children are abandoned and the phenomenon of street children has grown rapidly in post-conflict and post-adjustment contexts. Scholars and activists need to challenge claims of heteronormativity at the same time as articulating how we should interpret what constitutes deviant sexual behaviour in African societies. There is ample evidence in the West that abused children, without support, often end up becoming abusers themselves. If, as newspapers suggest, sexual abuse of children is on the rise in Africa, then we will end up with societies in which a significant proportion of individuals have perverse and damaging views of the sexual act. This can only lead to greater inter-personal violence. (full text).

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