Boys in South Africa are more at risk of sexual abuse than girls, according to a ground-breaking study released by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Wednesday. The three-year-long Optimus study is the first in South African history to estimate the national annual incidence and lifetime prevalence of child sexual abuse.
The study found that boys reported higher lifetime prevalence rates of sexual abuse (36.8%) than girls (33.9%).
Co-author Catherine Ward says: "It’s an important finding because boys have been neglected in the research and society’s thinking in general when it comes to child sexual abuse, but they are an essential factor in successfully breaking the cycle of violence."
For example, she says, "we know that there are links between having been abused and being obese. In addition, a proportion of young people who have been abused go on to perpetrate other forms of violence, including child abuse."
Researchers interviewed more than 10 000 children between the ages of 15 and 17 years old, conducted focus groups with local community representatives, as well as discussions with front-line care workers.
Overall, one in three young South Africans had experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. This equates to a total of 784 967 children who had experienced sexual abuse by the age of 17 with a total of 352 214 cases occurring among 15 to 17 year olds in 2015 alone.
Gender differencesAccording to Ward, there are gender differences in the types of sexual abuse reported. Girls are more likely to experience contact sexual abuse, where they are physically touched, and boys are more likely to experience exposure abuse, where the child is forced to see sexual images or incidents.
Although hundreds of thousands of school going children reported sexual abuse during the study in one year alone, only 18 524 matching cases were recorded by the South African Police Service in the 2013/2014 period – an average of 51 cases per day.
The authors point out that violence against children "remains hidden for many reasons". "Young children lack the capacity to report violence and older children often fear retaliation by perpetrators," the authors note.
In many cases, the parents are the perpetrators or remain silent to protect violent family members or powerful people in society. Nearly one in ten children reporting sexual abuse identified the perpetrator as an adult they know.
According to the study, the number of children who have experienced sexual abuse almost equals the population of the city of Port Elizabeth and is almost double that of Bloemfontein.
Yulia Privalova Krieger, from the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, commenting on the report, says that the findings identify "a critical gap in programme design that needs to be taken into account – the experience of boys".
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