Zimbabwe: Sexual abuse rises as humanitarian crisis worsens

HARARE, 24 April (IRIN) - "Before I came here, I was feeling very guilty, but now I feel much better," said 16-year-old Tendai, twisting her hands nervously.
She was chatting with a woman who looked on with compassion. They were both sitting with Tendai's mother in a small white painted room with bright posters on the walls. Piled on the shelves were skilfully crafted brown-coloured handmade dolls of all ages and both sexes.

The room is used for counselling children who have been sexually abused. The dolls are anatomically accurate - underneath their clothes they have either female or male genitalia.

"We use these dolls when the children cannot communicate easily," explained Miriam Machaya, the director of the Family Support Trust, which was set up in 1998 to support sexually abused children. The dolls are especially useful for the very young. For example, that week the dolls were used with a three-year-old girl who was able to relate how her "sekuru" (Shona for uncle) sexually abused her.

Most of the cases of abuse are committed by a relative or somebody close to the family of the child. Tendai (not her real name) was indecently assaulted by her stepfather. Her mother was away at the time. She reported the attack immediately to her mother and both of them left her stepfather, who was drunk and is one of the millions of unemployed in the country.

The humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe affects more than half of the country's 11.6 million people. As it has worsened, so to have the number of reported cases of child abuse.

"The effects of two years of severe drought, increasing poverty, the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic and economic decline have left children especially vulnerable to abuse," said Dr Festo Kavishe, UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Representative for Zimbabwe.

Inflation has rocketed to 228 percent and unemployment is reportedly somewhere between 75 and 80 percent. Around 75 percent of Zimbabweans are now classified as poor, and more than 30 percent of the adult population is HIV positive.

Soon the number of orphans, mainly due to HIV/AIDS, will reach one million. "It is a sad reality that in the context of hunger and poverty, these children - who should be the most protected - are often the most abused," said Kavishe. "They are often denied their basic rights, and are burdened with having to work at the expense of their rights as children to play and to attend school. Moreover, they have fallen prey to sexual abuse by adult relatives."

Some 12 percent of all children are HIV positive, mainly through maternal infections. But a significant number is through sexual abuse by men who are HIV positive, thinking they can cure themselves of AIDS by having sex with a virgin.

UNICEF, in partnership with several NGOs, supports a national campaign on "Zero Tolerance Against Child Abuse". As part of the campaign, UNICEF has supported training of trainers' workshops. The participants include government officials, NGOs, journalists, police and teachers. UNICEF has also contributed towards the production and distribution of 10,000 music cassettes with messages linking HIV/AIDS to sexual exploitation and child abuse.

Machaya, of Family Support Trust, has also worked and trained members of the community to be better sensitised to the growing problem. "People in all sectors are becoming more aware," said Machaya. "The victims and the families are finding it easier to come forward because now they are dealt with in a more sensitive manner. Most of them now say they want to go to court. We don't force them, although legally they should."

The clinic which Tendai attends in the capital, Harare, sees about eight cases of child abuse every day. The usual procedure is that a specially trained counsellor interviews the child. If it is a rape that occurred within 72 hours, the child will be offered antiretrovirals, and pre-test and post-test HIV counselling. A specially trained doctor examines the child and a full report is made which can be used in court.

If necessary, the child goes to the treatment room and receives further counselling. Those children who are severely traumatised see a psychologist.

Victim-Friendly Courts have also been set up in each province. But due to lack of funds, the equipment, such as video cameras to prevent the victim from seeing the defendant, has broken down and cases are held up, sometimes for years.

Kavishe recounted the case of a 12-year-old girl, Belinda. She was sick with AIDS-related diseases and told her counsellors she would not die happy unless she witnessed the sentencing "to a long time in prison" of the man who raped her six years ago.

In December last year, the Victim-Friendly Court in Gweru, in the centre of the country, was able to function again and Belinda was able to testify. The man who raped her, who was a friend of Belinda's late father, was sentenced to 20 years behind bars - 10 years for raping Belinda and another 10 for raping another young child. Belinda died in January this year, just a month after the sentencing.

Kavishe recently attended a Victim-Friendly Court in Harare, where he witnessed a three-year-old testify against a teenage neighbour who had allegedly raped her. "It was encouraging to see a child as young as she was, empowered to defend her right to protection," he said.


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