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First Steps in Breaching the Taboo of SGBV Against Children in Africa

Recent research in East and Southern Africa indicates post-rape services are increasingly frequented by girls, some as young as 11. The Population Council’s Chi-Chi Undie explains how the region can adapt better to their needs.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
South africa semenya gender test
Research shows an increasing number of young girls are reporting sexual and gender-based violence in Africa. AP/Karel Prinsloo

The Population Council supports NGOs and health partners working across Africa, providing technical assistance and carrying out research to help improve their services. During the past few years, researchers and partner organizations have reported a rise in the number of young children – mostly girls – reporting to police and health centers to access post-rape care or treatment for other forms of sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV). Chi-Chi Undie is senior associate with the Population Council’s reproductive health program in Kenya. She recently published a series of briefs on violence against children in East and South Africa. Undie spoke to Women & Girls about the work they are doing to improve their understanding of the issue and help partners better meet young girls’ needs.

Women & Girls: Can you summarize what the needs are in terms of SGBV in the region? How does monitoring help meet those needs?

Chi-Chi Undie: One of the key things about the region is that responses to SGBV are often delivered in low-resource settings, and we are still learning to develop homegrown solutions to such violence when resources are so limited. One of the things we have found consistently over the last 10 years is that the bulk of those using post-rape care services are girls below the age of 18. Often they’re concentrated between the ages of 11 to 14. So we are talking about very young adolescents here. For the last seven years or so, we’ve worked on developing responses for women – which is important – but children end up using these services more than any other group, and so we should be responding to this reality. Now we are trying to help adapt services to better deal with these needs.

Women & Girls: Are service providers equipped to deal with girls who need post-rape care?

Undie: There’s been a sort of hesitancy in the region to develop approaches specifically for children, and many of the services are not well suited for young girls. For example, many of the health professionals children come into contact with tend to overlook the fact that a child who has been raped might be pregnant. Yet a recent study by our partner LVCT Health found that at least 16 percent of girls presenting for post-rape care fell pregnant as a result of the attack. Another issue is that sometimes facilities just aren’t really child friendly. Sometimes they don’t have the equipment for examining children. They may not have plastic speculums for instance. Counseling is also often not child-friendly. Health providers and police have rarely been trained to attend to children in health facilities and police stations.

Women & Girls: Can you tell me a little bit about the specific projects or programs you’ve been doing on this?

Undie: Right now, we have seven different projects in five countries in Africa. What we’ve been doing is adapting tested approaches that were proven to be effective for women and assessing them all over again to see if we can make the services effectively meet the needs of children. One example is a project we introduced for screening women for intimate partner violence in health facilities in Kenya. We’re now adapting this approach to screen for child sexual abuse in two primary schools in Kenya, as well as in a hospital setting. We now know that nationally in Kenya and in the African region more generally, child sexual abuse is a really big problem. We also know that survivors of sexual violence in childhood never told anyone what happened, but often wished they had the opportunity to do so. We are trying to change that now to give children more opportunities to report what might be happening, and to receive care.

Another project we’re supporting is in South Africa, where we have a partner NGO. They’ve developed a model called the Zero Tolerance Village Alliance, and it’s a community-based SGBV prevention model. The idea behind it is to get a community excited about labeling themselves as a zero-tolerance zone for SGBV. The project has proven to be a very powerful community mobilization model, offering men the opportunity to take a stand against violence and pledge not to do it themselves. Now we are piloting the same schemes in Kenyan and South African schools, so children or young men can stand up and pledge the same to their female peers. Our research also shows that children’s abusers are oftentimes their peers, known to the victim, rather than an older stranger.

In Zambia, we’ve been trying to make police stations more child-friendly and trying to ensure that police are able to fulfil their role in protecting children, which includes escorting them to the hospital to get a health check if they have been raped and ensuring continuity in the chain of evidence.

Women & Girls: I’m surprised that so many children have been reporting rape at such a young age. Is there a reason for that?

Undie: UNICEF has partnered with governments in recent years to carry out national surveys on violence against children in a few countries in East and Southern Africa. Their data on the worrisome prevalence of violence against children backs up what we have found over the years. One of the reasons we are seeing so many children report rape is that a caregiver (parent, neighbor, teacher, etc.) often brings a child in for care when an incident happens. But when a woman is raped, she might think she can handle the situation herself and might be less likely to report as a result. Children are seen as more vulnerable, even though all SGBV survivors really need care.

Women & Girls: Why hasn’t this been recognised or dealt with earlier?

Undie: There are a lot of ethical issues around dealing with children, especially when it comes to research, and I think there has been a lot of hesitancy to delve too deeply into this issue until now. However things are changing, and recognition of the problem is one of the most important first steps.

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