Why we have to act now

  • 20 June 2016

  • 10 minute read

A recent study which found that one in three young South Africans are victims of sexual abuse, highlights the pressing need to adapt the justice system to deal effectively with child witnesses, says Dr Karen Müller, CEO of The Child Witness Institute.

The study into child maltreatment was commissioned by the UBS Optimus Foundation and conducted by researchers from the University of Cape Town and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention. Published in May, it found that there were over 350 000 cases of sexual abuse in 2015 alone, reported Daily Maverick.

According to the study, 784 967 children are likely to have suffered some form of sexual abuse by the time they turn 17, a number that would fill Soccer City stadium eight times over, as the authors noted. That is 37% of all boys and 34% of all girls. And what is most disturbing is that only 31% of the girls, and none of the boys, reported these instances of abuse to the police. A technical report on the study implied that when children did report abuse,  “the trajectory of criminal justice, psychosocial support and child protection services” was not as effective as intended by local laws, policies and regulations.

“It is a fractured system which delays justice and it is often too hard [for victims] to get the help that they really need,” Professor Catherine Ward, one of the authors of the Optimus study, told journalists in a briefing recently.

The lack of reliable data up to now has hindered the development of systems needed to protect and support children. In addition, the lack of support for social workers, teachers and potential guardians makes it difficult for children to report abuse safely. If there is no confidence in the system underreporting will remain an issue.

This is precisely what the Child Witness Institute has been working tirelessly to change. Although South Africa has inspiring legislation that aims to protect children and improve their experience in the criminal justice system, the implementation of this legislation has been piecemeal and sporadic, according to Dr Müller. “Sexual Offence courts have been rolled out throughout the country and include beautifully decorated waiting rooms and closed circuit equipment. However, there is minimal, if any, specialised training of prosecutors in these courts and presiding officers have also not received specialised training in this regard.”

And while the Child Witness Institute lauds the the Optimus report as an extremely good start, more intensive research is needed to focus on the prevention of sexual abuse, says Dr Müller. The Institute hopes to kick off its planned pilot study in the Eastern Cape by the end of the year, and the six-month programme will aim to get a clearer picture of the impact of sexual violence on child victims and how this is influenced by culture and location.

“It is crucial that we equip our children with the knowledge and skills to protect themselves, since in many instances they have to defend themselves against members of their very own families,”says Dr Müller. “The cycle of violence is perpetuated, because the majority of male victims will commit sexual (and other) offences and enter the criminal justice system as offenders, while abused girls will be revictimised and suffer from significant psychological illness if they do not receive some form of counselling. We have our work cut out for us.”

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