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Det er store mørketall når det gjelder seksuelle overgrep mot barn i tradisjonelle kulturer. Tall tyder på at problemet er stort i Afrika. Myndighetene og samfunnet glatter over og lar det skje. De skyldige går som regel fri. Jenter er mindre verdt. Barn kan ikke ta igjen. De blir knust.

Nytimes forteller en historie om en liten jente på Madagaskar som blir satt bort hos onkelen som skal ta seg av henne. Det ender med anal voldtekt som ødelegger henne for livet. Gjerningsmannen går fri etter en kort varetekt. Alle papirer er borte. Når man vet hvor mange barn som blir foreldreløse på grunn av aids, er det grunn til å frykte at mange barn blir ofre.

I Vesten er seksuelle overgrep mot barn belyst de senere år. Det er ingen grunn til å tro at dette er en vestlig perversjon. Men i tradisjonelle samfunn er tabuet fortsatt sterkt. Det virkelig alarmerende er at problemet ser ut til å øke i takt med modernisering.

In much of the continent, child advocates say, perpetrators are shielded by the traditionally low status of girls, a lingering view that sexual abuse should be dealt with privately, and justice systems that constitute obstacle courses for victims. Data is sparse and sexual violence is notoriously underreported. But South African police reports give an inkling of the sweep of child victimization. In the 12 months ending in March 2005, the police reported more than 22,000 cases of child rape. In contrast, England and Wales, with nine million more people than South Africa, reported just 13,300 rapes of women and girls in the most recent 12-month period.

«The prevalence of child rape in South Africa goes from really, really high to astronomically high,» said Dr. Rachel Jewkes, a specialist on sexual violence with South Africa’s Medical Research Council.

Africa is not unique in its high rates of abuse. While a survey of nine countries last year by the World Health Organization found the highest incidence of child sexual abuse in Namibia — more than one in five women there reported being sexually abused before age 15 — it also found frequent abuse in Peru, Japan and Brazil, among other nations. Relatives are frequent perpetrators in Africa, as in much of the world. But this continent’s children face added risks, especially at school. Half of Malawian schoolgirls surveyed in 2006 said male teachers or classmates had touched them in a sexual manner without their permission.

The number of abuse cases is rising in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and other African countries, statistics show. Whether that means more children are being victimized or more are coming forward — or both — is impossible to determine, experts say.

Researchers cite various reasons that abuse is so common: poverty, which makes it harder for parents to keep children safe; a legacy of violent, oppressed societies, and cultural mores that allow offenders to escape criminal punishment, often by marrying their victims or compensating their victims’ families.

But, ultimately, said Dr. Jewkes, of the Medical Research Council, the vast gap between the status of men and boys and that of women and girls explains much of the climate of relative tolerance. «If I had to put my finger on one overriding issue, it would be gender inequality,» she said.

Sex Abuse of Girls Is Stubborn Scourge in Africa