9 July 2014

South Africa: Helping Child Sex Abuse Victims

Activists trying to eliminate child sex abuse in South Africa have just ended a month-long campaign. They say such campaigns should run all the time. The issue raises disturbing questions about South African society.

Child sex abuse is a problem in South Africa. Vanespree Pillay, manager of the child protection agency Childline South Africa, said they receive numerous reports of children and juveniles under the age of 18 being sexually abused by adults. "Through our crisis line we get about 28,000 calls a month," she said.

Childline is an NGO that has been operating in all of South Africa's nine provinces for the last 27 years. It offers counseling and awareness programs for victims and their families. It also tries to ensure that South Africa's police and judiciary bring perpetrators to justice.

In two recent cases, a 40-year-old man from the Pretoria area has been arrested on suspicion of having abused some 60 girls, aged between 6 and 12 years, since 2007. A 36-year-oold man from KwaZulu-Natal provice was sent to prison for life for raping his 13 year-old step daughter.

Tholoake Ndlovu is one of several Childline counselors who assist victims that phone in for help. She said a high percentage of callers come from urban areas, but that doesn't mean child sex abuse is less common in rural parts of the country. It just isn't spoken about there.

Nonkululeko Bhengu is deeply concerned about the ignorance surrounding HIV-AIDS in rural areas in South Africa

"They will always try to suppress it if a child ever reports that she's being raped by an uncle," she said.

Nonkululeko Bhengu is a senior social worker with experience of rural families. She told DW that one difficulty counselors faced was the virgin cleansing myth.

"In the rural areas we have seen this because they still believe that having sex with a virgin is a cure for HIV-AIDS," she said.

This myth, which has no basis in medical fact whatsoever, has now evolved into something even more damaging and destructive.

"Before, it used to be with any virgin, now they say it's with a two year old. So it is very serious that people out there are not educated about HIV-AIDS," Bhengu said.

Child sex abuse victims do not only suffer from sexual molestation. They are also targets for physical violence. Outreach facilitator Xoli Njapa told DW she investigated one case in which a nine year old girl was severely beaten up after she told the family she was being repeatedly raped by her uncle.

"When she told them that it was the uncle, the child was beaten so badly until she collapsed. The child kept quiet about it until she visited her paternal aunt where she was able to disclose everything. The aunt took the child to hospital and the police, and brought her to Childline.

Social workers told DW the sexual abuse of young boys was just as prevalent as that of young girls, with uncles, neigbors and teachers being the main culprits. There was also abuse in churches. The topic was taboo in many families, communities and religious insitutions.

Homashni Peters runs Childline's 24-hour telephone counseling service. "You find that definitely all of us in society - child protection organizations, caregivers, civil society - have to take on the responsibility to ensure care and protection of children," she said.

Author Subry Govender / ms

Editor Mark Caldwell

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