Writes Key Correspondent, Pat Musira.
Headlines like ‘Priest charged with raping minor’, ‘Man rapes stepdaughter’ and ‘Uncle (33) rapes girl (15)’ are becoming part of a daily diet in Zimbabwe’s media and such cases are threatening the country’s fight against the HIV and AIDS pandemic, according to child rights groups.
Reported cases of sexual molestation and rape of young children – some as young as a few months old – seem to be spinning out of control, especially in this age of HIV and AIDS. A string of reported child sexual abuse, rape and attacks on teenage girls, especially orphaned and vulnerable girls, has thrown light on the country’s sexual abuse corridors.
The following case reported from Mutare by the Farm Orphan Trust of Zimbabwe (FOST) is a “good” example – if good can be used to describe such acts. A fifth grade primary school pupil and her sister (10 and 12 years old respectively) were forced to get “married” to their auntie’s husband. The two were instructed to watch their auntie having sex with her husband, as part of their orientation.
Through networking FOST managed to rescue the children to safety with assistance of the police’s Victim Friendly Unit and other child protection organisations.
The increasing reports of orphans falling prey to rape from guardians after losing parents offer a tragic insight into the precarious existence of orphans: vulnerable.
A spate of statistics from Childline, a child protection organisation that also serves as a drop-in centre for abused children, is arousing fears that if left unchecked, the reported increase in child abuse poses a danger in the fight against HIV infections.
“Children, especially between the ages of 10 and 15 years, are reporting more,” says Tara Miller, director of Childline.
“We are getting more calls probably due to awareness campaigns by child rights groups, the ministry of health and child welfare and other stakeholders.”
Her organisation has established more avenues for children who experience or suffer abuse to seek help, working in association with all the country’s four telecommunication providers – TelOne, NetOne, Econet and Telecel. These provide the toll free number 116 on their lines for children to access and report any incidences to Childline.
Confirming the worrying spike in the trend, Miller says: “Between five per cent and ten per cent of the 15,000 calls we receive per month relate to child sexual abuse.
“But what is of grave concern is we’re seeing repetitive behaviour where children are reporting maybe after being abused three or four times.”
Miller also reveals the majority of calls involve family, most often the orphan in an extended family management set-up. A new report by the National AIDS Council (NAC) says the extended family that of poverty and now the orphaned siblings face another danger: sexual abuse. The NAC’s new report showing a shocking rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people aged 15 – 24 years in the capital Harare has health experts worried that the country’s success in reducing HIV could be reversed.
The Southernn Africa AIDS Information Service (SAfAIDS) says orphans are among the most vulnerable groups in society because there are few support systems outside the family for them.
“Often emotionally deprived, vulnerable and financially desperate, orphans and vulnerable children are more likely to be sexually abused. As a result they are also at greater risk of getting infected with HIV,” notes one of their reports.
UNICEF estimates Zimbabwe’s orphans number 1.2 million. Masumi Yamashina, child protection officer at UNICEF’s Harare office, believes those who take action can help uncover and prevent sexual abuse and violence against children.
In an email response to questions on the increased reported cases, she says comprehensive and multi-sectoral interventions are needed to address the issue for both prevention and also responses to rape cases.
“In order to decrease child sexual abuse, UNICEF has supported relevant ministries and worked with NGOs in the following areas: Research on child sexual abuse to learn prevalence of this, type and nature of abuses and impact on children, root causes to identify effective and necessary interventions; Enhance victim friendly systems to provide comprehensive and survivor-centred support to survivors of sexual abuse; Empowerment of girls, boys, women and men to know their rights.
“Unicef also offers psychological support for survivors of sexual abuse” she says, adding that child sexual abuse is complex and caused by complex reasons.
“It is irrelevant to point out just one stakeholder as a responsible party, it is important to note that children have a right to be protected from any kind of abuse and exploitation and all people and agencies have a responsibility to prevent it,” she said.
Other organisations say girl orphans and the girl-child still have no real protection from male perverts and that deep-rooted primitive and patriarchal attitudes mean sexual crimes against women are easy to commit and often go unpunished.
“Society and even the family blame the girls,” says Tsitsi Madzore, leader of a youth group in the capital Harare.
“Parents prefer not to listen to their daughters, instead accusing them of being responsible for the abuse,” she says, explaining that orphans are more vulnerable.
‘Uncle (33) rapes girl (15)’ appeared in a local weekly newspaper and the vulnerability of orphans couldn’t have been more tragically illustrated.
After the dastardly act, the girl sought help only to receive a thorough beating from her auntie, accused of lying against her husband. The matter only came to light when she informed her sister who in turn reported to the police.
“A fundamental transformation in how men view and treat women and girls looks a distant dream. At the moment the perpetrators are not being deterred enough – girls need a little more respect and boys must grow up with respect for girls.
“And in this age of HIV and AIDS the message needs to get home that sexual abuse is a horrific crime and a sin” said Tsitsi.
Zimbabwe has recorded a significant decline in HIV prevalence, from 36% in the mid-1990s to 14.3 % in 2008. The latest figures put the rate at around 13.26% .
This has been attributed to behaviour change and use of condoms. But now, rape of minors puts children and orphans at risk of being infected and contacting the virus that causes AIDS.
HIV is spread during sex, through blood and in breast milk. Since AIDS emerged around the mid-1980s, 60 million people have been infected with HIV that causes it and more than 25 million have died from the pandemic. There should be sex education in school, to teach minors on abuse, says another youth officer from a children’s home in Harare .
“Children should be taught what constitutes abuse by an adult or an older person or adolescent” she says, referring to any inappropriate or suspect behaviour. Forms of child sexual abuse include asking or pressuring a child to engage in sexual activities regardless of outcome; indecent exposure of the genitals to a child; displaying pornography to a child; and sexual contact against a child.
“The surging reports, either due to awareness or access to communications, are a stain on the country’s efforts to create an AIDS-free generation. Anti-AIDS organisations need to face up to the realities affecting orphans and vulnerable children,” concludes Micaela Marques de Sousa, head of communications at UNICEF in Harare.