Reported child sex abuse on the rise in Africa amid new helplines, police work and legislation

By Katharine Houreld, AP
Saturday, October 2, 2010

Kenya sees rise in reports of child sex abuse

KABAZI, Kenya — Emma has gone to court every month for 2½ years to try and prove that a neighbor raped her mentally disabled 14-year-old daughter.

The process is excruciating. Evidence went missing. The court file disappeared. Officials mock and ignore her. But the illiterate single mother perseveres, encouraged by a new Kenyan government helpline started two and a half years ago to fight child abuse.

In Kenya and a handful of other African countries that have collected data, hospitals, police, the government and aid agencies are getting increased reports of child sex abuse. It’s unclear whether more abuse is happening or more people are coming forward, but the numbers may be the first sign that new initatives such as helplines, legislation and police units specializing in investigating sex abuse are starting to work.

“People often didn’t understand what constituted sexual violence, where to go or who to tell,” said Dr. Jill Keesbury, who worked in Kenya and is now in Zambia for the Population Council, a global aid group focusing on reproductive health.

Activists believe most cases of child sex abuse in Africa are not reported, and few countries even track it. But in the past 10 years, the number of African countries offering a hotline to report child abuse has risen from four to 14. UNICEF says Madagascar, South Africa and Zimbabwe have all passed laws to address sexual offenses, and eight other countries, including Angola, Burundi, and Ethiopia, are forming strategies aimed at stopping violence against women and children.

Perhaps as a result, Ghana’s domestic violence unit received 1,110 reports of child rape in 2009, up from 154 a decade ago. Sierra Leone’s Family Support Unit received 1,024 reports of sexual assault last year, up from 192 in its first year of operations in 2001; an officer said most cases involved children. Uganda saw increases in child sex abuse reports, to 12,300 in 2007 from 7,257 in 2003.

Only in South Africa, which has long had strong victim support, courts and child rights legislation, are reports of abuse declining, from 25,428 in 2006-07 to 20,141 in 2008-09.

Emma, who requested her full name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy, called the helpline after a neighbor raped her daughter in March 2008, she said.

“It would not have happened 10 years ago. I would not have brought the case,” she said, sitting in front of the wooden shack where she and her daughter Esther live. “They told me who to talk to and what to do.”

Between the green stalks of the corn plants, the shining tin roof of the house of Esther’s alleged rapist can be seen. As her daughter chuckled and cooed nearby, Emma said the man’s wealthy mother taunted her, saying she had paid off everyone in Kenya’s notoriously corrupt judiciary and the case would never be resolved.

“She said, ‘My son will never go to jail because of your retarded daughter.’ … She says she will take our land to pay for their costs,” Emma said quietly.

At first, Emma had high hopes for justice. Kenya had passed the Sexual Offenses Act a year earlier, substantially strengthening penalties for child sex abuse. The alleged rapist was arrested, although released on bail. A doctor examined Esther and certified she had been raped.

Then the problems began. The case dragged on for over a year. The doctor was transferred. Police lost the evidence. A year ago, the court file went missing.

Emma attends court once a month to ensure they will not issue a judgment in her absence. She sold the family’s only cow and now works eight days a month as a farm laborer to pay the bus fare. Her face furrows with worry as she talks, and the arms she wraps around her daughter are tough but thin.

Kenya’s Child Legal Action Network offers legal aid to sue abusers. The group says problems like Emma’s are depressingly familiar. The organization dealt with just over a dozen cases of child sex abuse in 1999; it helped 276 such children last year. Each case records a file number, the child’s age, and relationship to abuser. Then comes “challenges.”

“Police frustration,” read several. Or “slow justice system.”

Others say, “Abuser from rich family … family threatened.”

“Family giving up, will retrieve file” is scrawled across a case where a 3-year-old and a 13-year-old were reported raped two years ago. No judgment has been passed.

The most common problem is abusers bribing police, court officials or parents. Bail is available for almost all child sex offenses, usually for less than $100. Kenya’s government helpline says the perpetrator interferes in around 80 percent of cases. Parents bringing prosecutions have even been attacked, and Emma begged AP not to contact her daughter’s attacker for comment for fear of retaliation.

The new legislation, the helpline and the blossoming number of aid groups put child rights in Kenya ahead of most countries in Africa, says Keesbury. Kenya’s few convictions have recently resulted in heavy sentences, including the first life sentence for child rape handed down last year. The courts do not keep records of sex abuse cases separately, but the legal action network estimates that just over a third of cases where a judgment is handed down result in a conviction, usually of several years.

Late last year, the child helpline set up direct contact with the teachers union to suspend teachers accused of abusing their pupils. Studies in Swaziland and Ghana found sex abuse is widespread in schools, and news reports indicate that the problem is common throughout the continent.

Everyone has a theory about why abuse is so rampant. Men feeling inadequate due to poverty or politics may seek to reassert their dominance, said psychotherapist Heidi Pidcoke, who has counseled both perpetrators and survivors of abuse since moving to Africa seven years ago.

“They want to assert some level of power over someone too small to threaten them,” she said.

Ahmed Hussein, the head of Kenya’s Children’s Services, blames widespread drug and alcohol abuse among families crowded together in slums. Kenya police records show that child rapes increased from 1,067 in 2005 to 1,849 in 2008, but Hussein says the increase has in fact been much larger since he took his position six years ago. Hussein says many families choose not to involve the notoriously corrupt police.

Other activists blame poverty and lax policing, or traditions of young marriage. When abusers are male family members, both mother and child may depend on them for food.

Abusers may attack African children simply because they can get away with it. Edward Ouma, the head of the legal action network, says when an abuser is arrested, other families usually come forward or police find evidence indicating prolonged, multiple attacks. Not one of the hundreds of cases his group has dealt with this year involved a first-time offender, he said. One Islamic teacher who abused 13 boys was only discovered because he infected them with a disease and one boy’s parents went to a clinic.

Emma’s odyssey shows how even determined parents with good advice face a monumental battle. Last month she carefully washed her muddy feet, put on her second-best skirt and went to the prosecutor’s office to ask again if they’d found her daughter’s file. A portly lawyer rummaged desultorily through an overflowing filing cabinet before sending her to another office.

A bored police official there directed her downstairs, where a woman sent Emma to the children’s registry. There another woman reluctantly shuffled through the neatly-bound stacks of pastel folders — each of which must be signed in and out — before admitting she knew the file was missing.

Her supervisor was aware of the problem, but on leave, she said, before turning away.

Associated Press Writers Clarence MacCauley in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Lesego Motshegwa in Johannesburg, South Africa; Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria; and Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this report.

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