13 March, 2002
Sexual Offences against Children in South Africa.
Considerations for primary prevention.
National SAPS Data: All Recorded Sexual Crimes to Children
(Source: SAPS and RAPCAN, 2001).
Of course these figures do not tell the full story. It is well known that recorded sexual crimes greatly under estimate prevalence. Also, less injurious crimes to children than rape are far less likely to be reported.
2.2.) Who is offending? How and where does it happen?
The perpetrators are males. Thus, in South Africa, and based on the SAPS recorded data for the year, 354 men in every 100 000 raped a woman or young girl in 1998. Another way of putting these figures is to state that 3-4 men in every 1000 are recorded by the police as having raped in one particular year. This is a staggering figure
A Gauteng docket analysis of crimes against children in 1996-1997 (SAPS, 2001) shows that the crime occurred 14% of the time at the victim’s house, and 52% of the time at another house (offender’s house or that of a person known to the child). The majority (46%) of offenders were between 12 and 25 years, and 90% were known to the victim. Unfortunately the SAPS report does not permit us to break these offender age groups down further. However it is probable that the majority of these offenders are in the 18 to 25 year old bracket.
Fourteen percent (14%) of the offenders were classified as "parents". It is not known whether these include non-biological parents, and 12% were other family members (the intra-familial total is therefore 26%). Significantly, most of the offenders were unemployed (38%). Twenty percent (20%) were school pupils or students in some or other higher institution.
When do these incidents happen? The evidence suggests that they happen most frequently over the weekends, alcohol abuse by the perpetrator is commonly associated with the incident, and domestic violence often co-occurs with physical and sexual abuse (SAPS, 2001). Other vulnerable times are during the week after school. As in so many other crimes, alcohol plays an amplifying role as it breaks down inhibitions that would otherwise place limits on the perpetrator’s behaviour.
This data therefore suggests that people who live near the child, who are acquainted with the child or the child’s family and who have time on their hands pose a particular risk. While the intra-familial statistics are alarming, it is clear that 74% of the offenders are not family although they may live in the same household. In addition, and given the co-occurrence of ‘race’ and socio economic status in this country, the racial profile of the victims noted above is suggestive that girls living in disadvantaged communities are most vulnerable.
Primary prevention has to take this data into account. But it also has to take the fundamental problems seriously, and they include features of poverty environments and male attitudes and behaviour.
3) The role of poverty environments in sexual abuse
Studies in the United States show that the rate of child sexual abuse in the lowest income groups is 6 times higher than in families who are better off (Pelton, 1994). This data (based on abuse reported to police), is not limited to intra-familial abuse but includes abuse that happens elsewhere in the community.
There is no comparable South African data, but SAPS precinct data and evidence such as that presented above indicates that crimes to children are likely to be significantly higher in poor areas. Clearly, the South African findings are biased to an extent by the tendency to under report these crimes (particularly intra-familial sexual abuse) in all communities.
3.1.) Why is abuse more probable in poor neighbourhoods?
I prefer to use the term ‘neighbourhood’ rather than ‘community’. The latter is a very loose term, whereas in the technical literature one defines a neighbourhood in terms of clear geographical boundaries such as a census tract or a street block. This allows us to define the characteristics of the area with more precision.
Poverty amplifies personal liabilities. In other words, people with low self esteem, a low sense of personal control over their lives, and a tendency to depressed mood, struggle more than others to cope with the strain of poverty. In addition, poverty conditions can generate these characteristics in people who are not necessarily particularly vulnerable. Fundamentally, people who are struggling to cope with the strains of poverty may feel overburdened to the point at which childcare becomes yet another strain.
At least two reactions are probable in vulnerable caregivers under such conditions:
outbursts of anger at children, which can result in physical abuse;
neglect due to caregiver withdrawal as well as the caregiver’s difficulties with the demands of childcare.
It is very probable that at least some forms of child sexual abuse in poor communities are related to both these factors.
A further consequence of living in an abusive household is that the children will tend to play outside the home as the conditions in the home are so difficult. This reduces the caregiver’s ability to monitor their whereabouts, and renders the child vulnerable to sexual abuse in the neighbourhood.
Apart from individual parental factors such as these, in dangerous neighbourhoods it is simply a great deal more difficult for parents to protect their children from abuse of various kinds. Therefore abuse is not simply a product of neglect in such circumstances, but is also a consequence of the dangerous conditions under which parents have to live. Studies indicate that in similarly poor communities, those areas that are safer have lower proportions of abused children (Pelton, 1994).
Structural features of poverty environments that raise the risk of abuse include:
-Overcrowded housing in which there is little possibility of separation between sexualized adults or teenagers and children.
-Inclusion of non-kin males (e.g. lodgers) in already overcrowded households as a way of improving family income.
-Social isolation of families in communities with high rates of mobility – particularly informal settlements: a lack of connectedness and social cohesion in the community means that women and children have limited sources of support from neighbours.
-Poor recreational and related resources for youth.
-Unsafe neighbourhoods with low levels of policing and high levels of gang activity restrict movement and render children vulnerable to attack.
-Personal features of poverty environments that raise the risk of abuse:
-Individual parents struggle to cope with the strains of poverty: reactions include low emotional resources, depression, and intra-familial and community violence.
-High levels of alcohol abuse.
-Parental difficulties with child monitoring and supervision (particularly where childcare facilities are very limited).
-Large numbers of unemployed men and youth.
That said, it is the case that by far the majority of our people do not abuse children. In addition, the vast majority of people living in very difficult circumstances also do not perpetrate sexual abuse.
4) The role of male attitudes and values in sexual abuse
The causes of violence to children and sexual violence in particular are very complex and a full discussion is well beyond the scope of this brief presentation. However, one thing is obvious but not sufficiently recognised in our response to the emergency. That is, the common denominator in all these cases is that the abusers are men/boys and nine times out of ten the victims are girls.
South Africa is not unique in this regard (Aranson-Fontes, 1995). As Lloyd de Mause (1991), has noted, sexual abuse has been universal rather than unusual in human history. Sexual contact of some form (although not rape), between young female children and older male children or male adults has been common for centuries and has occurred in many cultures.
4.1.) Male dominance:
A necessary condition for violence to children and sexual abuse, is an ideology that justifies male dominance over women and children. It is of interest that this issue is very rarely put on the table when child protection policies and procedures are developed.
Understandably, due to the need for structured responses to child protection, policy initiatives in South Africa and elsewhere have tended to focus on tertiary level interventions at the individual level of the problem (e.g. September, 2000; September & Loffell, 1997; Weihe, 1996).
However, if we are to be serious about addressing violence and sexual abuse of children, we have to find a way of addressing this difficult and embedded aspect of out collective psyches. Problematic cultural and attitudinal factors that are associated with the risk of sexual abuse regardless of socio economic atatus or ethnicity include the following:
-male presumptions regarding their rights and powers in relation to women and children.
-A cultural background that promotes male dominance and aggression to women and children.
-An ideology that sexualises young girls through a range of practices including media and local community practices (e.g. talent contests in which young girls are lauded for imitating the sexualized performances of pop stars).
These factors, which lie at the heart of the problem, are not commonly addressed in efforts to reduce the risk of abuse to children.
4.2.) Male violence
In recent years there has been considerable research into the links between masculinity and violence (including sexual violence). One example is Campbell’s (1992) research, and her work is worth some attention here. Campbell has shown that in some South African communities at least (her work was conducted in working class communities in Kwazulu-Natal), there is an important link between poverty, male identity, sexual aggression and other forms of violent behaviour.
Campbell says: "For men who were oppressed both in race and class terms, their socially sanctioned power over women and young men in the family was often the only area in which they were able to exercise any dominance…..in the more recent past, male power in the family has been threatened on both the material and decision-making fronts" (p618). She notes further that "the father feels humiliated and emasculated given that the notions of provider, household headship and masculinity seem to be so closely interlinked" (p619). In her sample, fathers said that they had lost the ability to demand respect from wives and children.
Thus for these men, violence was the re-assertion of masculinity. As Campbell puts it: male violence and sexual dominance is a "socially sanctioned recipe for living which is available to men of all ages for the reassertion of their manhood." P623). The family is therefore the cradle of violence, and a real man is one who is able to dominate his female partner and children. Campbell’s research also points to the fact that forced sex was a common practice among the youth she studied.
Similarly, studies of gangs have shown the importance of aggressive masculine identities to young men and teenagers who have few other sources of recognition. Rapes (often of young girls in enemy gang territory) are part of the initiation rites of gang membership on the Cape Flats (Pinnock 1982; 1997). It is not surprising that high rates of sexual crimes to teenage and young girls occur in communities within which gangs are a powerful presence.
While I have spoken of masculine attitudes in poor communities, the attitudes supportive of male dominance and sexual control are prevalent at all levels of South African society. My point has been to indicate the high risks to children and women that result from poverty conditions that undermine male identities and amplify the tendency to aggression and sexual violence.
In sum, and regardless of socio-economic status, communities that
accept and reinforce male superiority over women,
accept men’s rights to sexual dominance of women,
socialise men into aggressive sexuality,
that value younger and less powerful females as sexual objects,
and have poor child protection structures in families and local communities,
will be high risk communities for child sexual abuse.
This is particularly the case during times of rapid social change accompanied by economic hardship, rural-urban mobility, and threats to traditional male authority.
5) Recommendations for Primary prevention strategies in poverty contexts
Primary prevention attempts to develop strategies to protect all children from abuse as far as it is possible by:
a) ensuring that children’s immediate human and physical environments do not pose a risk for abuse, and
b) attempting to address some of the underlying attitudinal factors that lay the ground for child abuse in its various manifestations (Melton & Barry, 1994; September & Loffell, 1997).
The first of these involves neighbourhood level development and support strategies that can be implemented in the short to medium term. The second involves the much more difficult and long-term process of changing attitudes and behaviour. The latter change is likely to occur over several generations rather than in the short-term.
The final section of my presentation will comment on these strategies in particular. I will not be considering child protection procedures of a formal nature. Nor will I be dealing with the rehabilitation of perpetrators and victims.
I need to caution that there are no easy solutions here and this is probably why people working in this field have concentrated on addressing the needs of children who are at high risk for abuse or who have been abused and need care. While it is possible to work towards more child friendly and protective families and neighbourhoods, this is a problem that occurs largely in intimate spaces that cannot easily be policed.
I have chosen to focus on poverty contexts because it is in such areas that large numbers of children face multiple risks. It is also in these areas that neglect and physical and sexual abuse are likely to co-occur. There is therefore a priority need for prevention strategies in such communities. This is not to imply that abuse does not occur in wealthy suburbs. Clearly all children need protection. However, children in poor areas have particular needs that I wish to address in this particular submission.
My thrust is that we should avoid creating a whole set of separate primary prevention initiatives for sexual abuse that add to cost and duplication. Rather, primary level initiatives should ‘mainstream’ the issue of sexual abuse into community based child protection strategies. Such a position does not detract from the need to strengthen the statutory services available for child protection and rehabilitation. Clearly this is a critical need.
5.2.) Broad recommendations
Primary prevention interventions require three related components Baumrind (1995):
Neighbourhood programmes to improve safety and child monitoring
Changes in attitudes and behaviour.
While child sexual abuse is a particular problem with particular dynamics, it is important to see it as part of the wider problem of violence and neglect of children and the abuse of women.
5.3) Specific recommendations
What follows is based in some respects on points made by United States Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect (U.S. ABCAN). U.S. ABCAN has recommended a national strategy that connects to the three components above and is relevant for the South African situation (U.S. ABCAN, 1990; 1991; 1993).
5.3.1.) Strengthen social cohesion and make neighbourhoods safe
Increase a caring orientation at neighbourhood level: Programmes are required that strengthen (including make safe) urban, suburban and rural neighbourhoods as environments for children and families. The point is to strengthen "neighbourhoods both physically and socially, so that people care about and support each other’s families" so that child protection becomes "a part of everyday life, a function of all sectors of the community " (Melton & Barry, 1994, p.8). Areas with gang activity and other crime, as well as Informal housing settlements with high population mobility, are particularly important sites for intervention.
Mainstream the issue of child sexual abuse in neighbourhood programmes: Neighbourhood level child abuse primary prevention strategies are designed to address some of the core problems noted earlier in my discussion of the risk factors associated with poverty environments. The North American neighbourhood-based family support programmes have not commonly included sexual abuse in their models of delivery. However, experts in the field, James Garbarino & Kathleen Kostelny (1994) argue, correctly in my view, that it is appropriate to include sexual abuse in community based child abuse prevention strategies in poor communities. If this does not occur, the result is that the problem of child sexual abuse is given a separate status and the risk is that the problem may receive low attention and can be marginalized.
Make child protection services accessible at police precinct level, and strengthen the primary prevention orientation in protection services at precinct level: Services need staffing. This is a problem that must be addressed by well trained staff (both in the SAPS and in the Dept. of Social Development.
We must face the fact that an effective service must be staffed properly and funded.
Community based initiatives are essential: Based on the foregoing argument, it is crucial to make sure the training and mandates of neighbourhood groups formed to address child abuse and neglect, include the subject of child sexual abuse and strategies for reporting. Several examples of such projects operate in the Western Cape. They include projects run by organizations such as the Cape Town Child Welfare Society and others that are training child protection and family support volunteers in high risk communities (September, Beerwinkel & Jacobson, 2000). Such initiatives need funding and support from the State. If they continue to rely on donor funding, their viability is at risk.
Improve child safety out of school time: As was evident from the data I presented earlier in the paper, children are vulnerable to abuse during the times when school is out. I suspect, although I have no evidence for this, that the school holiday periods are also risk times. This is because many children are unsupervised due to their parents being unavailable for care for some reason. I would therefore recommend the use of facilities such as schools for after-school and holiday supervision of children who would otherwise have little or no day care. In this regard, retired teachers, pensioners and religious organizations could be asked to assist. I would be strongly against a fee for service arrangement. Most of these vulnerable families would not be able to meet even small costs.
5.3.2.) Support Vulnerable families at risk for abuse
Interventions are required to support families rendered vulnerable by unemployment, overcrowding and alcohol abuse within which child sexual abuse is likely to occur. A simplistic punitive orientation to this problem is likely to drive it further into the margins and silence the vulnerable even further.
Improve social security: A comprehensive social security system would go a long way to reducing some of the basic stresses experienced by poor families and which contribute to the risk of abuse.
Funding for primary prevention staffing: Apart from the need for staffing tertiary level interventions noted above, there is a clear need to fund positions for professional staff to supervise programmes designed to strengthen families as part of primary prevention.
Support vulnerable families to restore empathic caregiving: A major problem in South Africa is the so-called ‘loss of morals’ that some have argued has led to child abuse. One behavioural component of this phenomenon is a lack of empathy for others (particularly those less powerful such as children). The capacity to empathise is a major protective factor against abuse of all kinds, and our capacity for empathy is compromised by harsh living conditions where a survival mentality prevails. Abuse and neglect will be reduced if we can restore empathy. But to do that we have to support individuals and families that are at risk for low empathy often due to their extremely desperate circumstances. We should not simply exhort them to attend to their morality. And threats of punishment will not work. In the old South Africa one was hung for rape. That did not prevent rape.
Alcohol and sexual abuse: The evidence is that alcohol abuse is commonly associated with domestic violence and sexual assaults on the young, particularly over the weekends. Alcohol is a major amplifier of aggressive tendencies and is a significant problem in many communities. Ways of dealing with this issue and the threat it poses to children need to be addressed. The regulation of alcohol availability needs to be addressed at national and local levels.
5.3.3) Develop programmes aimed at reorienting attitudes and practices
Sexualisation of children: Attention needs to be paid to a range of taken for granted practices that may contribute to the exploitation and sexualisation of children. These would include an examination of advertising practices, and attention to practices at schools and other institutions that promote the sexualisation of pre teen girls in particular (for example modeling and talent contests).
Masculinity and sexual violence: Although I do not know of specific work in this area, it is my view that there is a key need in this country to deal with the problem of threatened male identities, particularly in communities in which male identity is undermined by unemployment and related forces. As I have tried to show in my presentation, this is where a significant source of the sexual abuse problem may lie. At a practical level, what this means is designing interventions to affirm and support male youth and unemployed men in particular. One way of doing this is through support for skills training as well as sport and recreation opportunities. There are many other possibilities.
Education and sexual violence: Attitude and behaviour change, as well as the creation of more empathic citizens are long-term objectives. The topic of sexual violence and its association with concerns about masculine identity needs to be addressed in the school life skills programmes. I would suggest that gender sensitivity and non-violent conflict resolution between boys and girls commence in the earliest years of schooling. However, particular attention needs to be paid to gender violence during the teenage years in association with discussions on relationships and dating. .
5.3.4.) Fund research into the problem and into solutions
As a priority we need to survey the South African programmes providing services to affected children, families and communities. We need to know what strategies are working, what are the difficulties etc. We need to know the proportion of vulnerable families and children who are being served, and the proportion ‘falling through the cracks’. At this point we simply do not know the extent to which the need is being addressed. All we can say with certainty is that services for abused children are woefully inadequate and that primary prevention is not receiving focused attention.
A number of my recommendations have been voiced before (e.g South African Law Commission Report on the child Care Act 2001; September & Loffell, 1998). Considerable consensus exists about what needs to be done. However it is often the detail of programming that is missing from these proposals. The same problem attends my submission. This is a function of the fact that the time available for our presentation does not permit in depth study. Each of the proposals made in this submission would need careful consideration and development into workable well-designed programmes that are then evaluated. While there is great urgency, careful planning is required to develop models of good practice.
There is considerable experience of the problem of child abuse in South Africa when it comes to tertiary
intervention and statutory child protection work. This is less the case in the primary prevention field. Nonetheless, a number of community-based models are emerging that hold promise. However, before we assume they are the best way to proceed, we need to do the research to find out what works and why. That will permit us to roll out effective preventions for longer term impact.
Sadly, child sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon. The recent media around child rape has only served to highlight once more a problem that has been with us for many years. Indeed we need to be aware that as our strategies for dealing with this problem improve, reporting rates for child abuse will likely rise. This will be because our child protection work is better, and perhaps more important, with education and support, both children and adults will feel more empowered to report the crime.
The problem requires sustained attention. We have seen many processes of this nature start and then dissipate as the media attention shifts to another topic. We are therefore hopeful that this process initiated by parliament will initiate a sustainable primary preventative approach to the problem of child sexual abuse, as part of a renewal of strategies to protect all children from all forms of abuse and neglect.
I thank you.
7.) Summary of recommendations
1.) Primary prevention interventions require three related components:
Neighbourhood programmes to improve safety and child monitoring
Changes in attitudes and behaviour.
2.) Strengthen social cohesion and make neighbourhoods safe:
Community based child protection and family strengthening initiatives are essential.
Develop programmes to increase a caring and child focused orientation at neighbourhood level.
Mainstream the issue of child sexual abuse in neighbourhood programmes.
Funding and support from the State is required for community based child protection and family strengthening initiatives to be sustainable.
Make child protection services accessible at police precinct level.
Strengthen the primary prevention orientation in protection services at precinct level.
An effective child protection service must be staffed properly and funded.
Investigate the regulation of alcohol.
Improve child safety during out of school time.
3.) Support vulnerable families at risk for abuse:
Improve social security for vulnerable families
Support vulnerable families to restore empathic caregiving at home.
4.) Develop programmes aimed at reorienting attitudes and social values:
Tackle the links between masculinity and sexual violence in marginalied youth and unemployed men.
Educate for attitude change around sexual violence in school programmes
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