Friday, 6 February 2015

Hidden in plain sight: Child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe

Child sexual abuse is on the rise in Zimbabwe. With law enforcement authorities reporting that more than 100 girls are sexually abused every day —more than at any other time in the history of the country — it is likely that everyone will encounter children who have been sexually abused in their day-to-day activities.

What should you do if you see or hear of a child who has been sexually abused?

How can ordinary Zimbabweans play a part in bringing child sexual abuse to an end?

It is important for every Zimbabwean to recognise and confront child sexual abuse. There are both moral and practical reasons to take a stand.

Child sexual abuse is internationally recognised as a crime against children and laws against child sexual abuse vary by country, based on the local definition of who is a child and what constitutes child sexual abuse.
Hidden in plain sight: Child sexual abuse in Zimbabwe
Despite concerted effort by key stakeholders such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, the Department of Social Services and non-governmental organizations, cases of child sexual abuse are on the increase.

Helping children escape sexual abuse is part of what we owe our children.

It is unthinkable that a teacher or a neighbour would observe the symptoms of a pupil being abused and do nothing about it. Child sexual abuse involves the same imperative to act.

Communities should learn the warning signs of child sexual abuse and the actions they can take when they see it, because homes are among the most likely spots for child sexual abuse.

Among the poorest communities, the vulnerability to child sexual abuse, and its prevalence, are usually much higher. Government especially through the Department of Social Services often has very little presence or are sometimes thinly represented as to offer real value to local people in these areas.

Communities may be the only mechanism to help affected children and households to take action against child sexual abuse.

Child sexual abuse is typically hidden in plain sight. Sexually abused children are often too afraid to talk and their abusers are often close by. But there are red flags to watch for: any signs of fear, or people saying that things are going fine when it is obvious that children especially girls do not play as other children and are always withdrawn for daily normal activities.

Another red flag is increased dropout rates for girls in schools. Children who are sexually abused usually do not perform well in school.

Other signs include distraction or distance at odd times; writes, draws, plays or dreams of sexual or frightening images; develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places; refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child; talks about a new older friend; suddenly has money, toys or other gifts without reason and exhibits adult-like sexual behaviours, language and knowledge.

So what steps can communities take when they discover child sexual abuse?

First, one needs to watch out for the safety of the child or children they encounter. Children can be beaten into submission or threatened with death if the abuser discovers they are interacting with outsiders. Second, do not try to deal with child sexual abuse single-handed.
People are tempted to just “get the child out.”

That is a very human, natural response. But child sexual abuse survivors need somewhere to go that is safe, where they will receive basic services, where they will have space to recover and where they can be reintegrated into society. Find out who is doing what about child sexual abuse in the country and in your local area. Last but not least, communities need to find out about the country’s laws and what assistance is supposed to be available for a child who has been sexually abused.

Beyond helping individuals, communities can help by getting the issue into the open. Short-term awareness raising and one-time meetings may not make much of a difference. But sometimes with a little re-engineering, communities can provide a real pathway to liberation for those affected by child sexual abuse — as well as some long-term protection to reduce the risk that child sexual abuse will reoccur.

The author is a Communications Officer at UNICEF Zimbabwe, For comments and contributions, email: harare@unicef.org. Herald

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