Covid-19: Sexual Abuse

Covid-19: Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is rising as countries close schools and impose various levels of lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic. Child sexual abuse is a criminal act committed against children which is one of the least acknowledged and least explored forms of child abuse in African countries.

The issue of child sexual abuse has been included in a number of international and continental legal policies such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and is advocated by numerous international institutions, bodies and organs.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) explicitly states that sexual acts are assumed to be a criminal offense and punishable by the law. It asserts the child's right to be protected against all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation including being forced to engage in unlawful sexual activities, prostitution and pornography.

Furthermore the African Union (AU) specifically promotes policies related to young peoples’ rights and through its mandate provided by legal instruments (i.e. the AU Agenda 2063 and 5th Strategic Priority of the AU Strategic Plan 2014 –2017), the AU works to promote common standards by supporting the implementation of these instruments at regional and national levels and to ensure accountability mechanisms in the process. 

Though child sexual abuse is a universal problem, only reported cases of the incidents are the most common source of information to get insight on how to understand the problem. Besides investigating complaints presented by victims themselves would be a stepping stone for designing prevention and rehabilitation programs both physical and psychological.

The Women and Children Affairs Bureau in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, says more than 100 girls have been raped since the outbreak of Covid-19, which authorities attribute to school closures. Head of the Women and Children Affairs Bureau, Almaz Abraham, says 101 girls have been raped in the past two months since the schools have closed, adding that this has played a major role in the increase of sexual violence in the East African country, the BBC has said, quoting a report from Walta TV.

One of the problems is that, unlike when schools were open, the attacks are not being exposed until the girls get pregnant. There would likely be chances of stopping it from reaching that stage if the girls were going to school.

The implications for survivors of violence against women and girls are immense with the trauma and rippling effects of the abuse lasting in some cases a lifetime. Due to cultural taboos many women and girls are hesitant to speak up and report their cases thus they remain trapped at home with their abusers as many African States continue to be placed under mandatory lockdown. Furthermore for the few that are brave enough to report these cases to the authorities, most courts are closed and it is unknown when they will open up again.

In Nigeria the recorded cases show an increase in the level of reporting as it concerns survivors of sexual violence. It is also possible to infer linkage between children being out of school due to the enforced lockdown and the increase in reported cases.

Across Africa amid the COVID crisis, there are critical concerns as refuges for survivors of violence struggle to remain open. If the lockdown continues and the number of incidences continues to rise, it may become extremely difficult for centers to respond effectively per the demand. This is even more evident with the shutdown of refuges for survivors that should be at the forefront of responding to incidences of sexual abuse during this period.

A gender-responsive strategy must be underscored by the government and all stakeholders in dealing with the out of school children during the COVID-19 crisis. This includes the prioritization of gender-based violence (GBV) centers as essential services.

In the meantime, other child welfare organizations should continue lobbying to make it easier for children to report abuse. One of the solutions is to get all of the online learning platforms that children are interacting with to have a reporting function in plain sight for children. Member States and development partners working in the area of girls and children must continue sharing best practices and call on governments and development partners in the education sector to come up with responses that put into consideration the limitations of learners; particularly girls living in low income and disadvantaged communities who cannot afford internet data and do not own ICTs like computers, TV or radio.