20 March 1997

Study Finds Three out of Ten Zim Children Sexually Abused
by Jan Raath

Harare--Three out of 10 Zimbabwean children can expect to be sexually abused, according to a report released in the capital Harare. It also says the incidence is three times higher than anywhere else in the world.

Psychologists Naira Khan and Kwadzanai Nyanungo uncovered the startlingly high incidence in a confidential questionaire they put to 549 Harare high school students. The research, the first of its kind in Africa and soon to be published by Harvard University's journal, Social Science and Medicine, also found that boys are abused as often as girls are.

They say the rate of abuse contrasts with studies in Europe and America that have established an incidence of 10 per cent of children who get molested. It also differs radically from observations in the Middle and Far East where child sexual abuse is rare.

Underlying the high incidence is traditional African custom that regards a girl as marriageable at the age of 12, condones rape as a "a more serious form of seduction" and encourages maternal uncles to fondle girls as a form of socialisation, the researchers say.

Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe's attorney-general, recently told a conference on the issue of child abuse: "Take a hard re-look at our culture and you will realise, as I have done, that our culture has not only turned a blind eye to cases of child sexual abuse, but has indeed glorified and given respectability to certain of the child sexual abuses."

The study found that for all but 22 per cent of the abused children, their experiences were ordeals that persisted for between six months and six years, some of it starting when they were four years old. Forty-one per cent of the girls were raped, and the rest subjected to unwanted touching.

In the boys' case, 55 per cent of the perpetrators were women. Sixty-four per cent of the male and female abusers forced the boys to have sex with them. Eighteen per cent of the boys were raped.

"Some of the questionaires were horrifying," Khan said.

The report cites other widespread evidence of abuse. A 1988 survey found that half of the pregnancies in females under the age of 24 were to girls younger than 14, and that in 11 per cent of marriages the brides were under 15 years. In 1990, Harare's Genito-Urinary Centre treated 907 children under 12 years.

And the signs are that abuse is rising sharply. The Harare magistrate's court shows a steady 40 per cent annual increase in child rape cases it has heard over the last three years, reaching 370 last year. Anecdotal evidence from other researchers is that half of the children turning up for treatment at some of Harare's municipal clinics have sexually transmitted diseases.

Almost every day reports appear in the press. This last weekend's Sunday Mail, the country's largest circulation newspaper, quotes police as saying that 29 cases of child rape were reported in the province of Mashonaland East in the north of the country in January, and another 43 in February. A teacher is currently on trial here for raping three primary school girls at once.

Monday's issue of the Herald, the main daily newspaper, carries two cases, of the rape of a child of eight and another of three. Harare magistrate William Cutler is quoted as saying that three quarters of the rape cases in the Harare court involve children. He said rapists preferred to abuse children "because they offer no resistance".

Khan and Nyanungo stress that incidents are seriously under-reported.

Khan will not extrapolate their findings, but their experiment was repeated in Bulawayo and found that around 28 per cent of children had been abused. Their report also cites the widely quoted 1994 study by Rebecca Hallahan which says sexual violence of girls at schools all over sub-Saharan Africa is endemic.

The evidence explodes the myth of the African child as being far more secure from the sexual abuse that occurs in Western countries where children are vulnerable to paedophilia networks, rogue child molesters and pornographic videos.

Instead, Khan and Nyanungo found that strangers rarely had anything to do with the abuse. In the case of the girls, 74 per cent of the perpetrators were male relatives, mostly someone in a parental role, and the rest were teachers. With the boys, 91 per cent of the abusers were relatives, teachers or family employees.

Khan says certain aspects of traditional culture "definitely affect the incidence of child sexual abuse". Much of it is to do with the male dominated society that regards women and children as possessions. The situation is worsened, she says, "by the still existing view that girls in particular, 'asked for it', or 'provoked' sexual assault".

It is also associated with witchcraft, where sex with a child is used as a charm to ward off evil. In a country with one of the highest incidences in the world of HIV infection, there is the increasing use of rape of young girls as a cure for, or prevention of, Aids.

"We do not take such allegations lightly," Chinamasa told traditional healers. "We believe there is an unscrupulous minority among your members who, for the love of money, prescribe such therapy."

The report says law officers put people complaining of sexual abuse through such an ordeal, that "we can find no reason for any family to enter the present system and report..."

However, in the last year, authorities have become much more aware of the problem, Khan says, and nearly every police station now will have an officer trained to handle cases with senstitivity. Later this year a bill to introduce "victim-friendly" court proceedings, in line with procedures developed in Europe and the United States, is to be debated in parliament.

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