By Chris Obong’o
â€œA case of sexual abuse of a girl, 12, in class 6 in Mukuru kwa Njenga Primary school in Nairobi was reported to the police. Her father was known to be a violent person. He frequently abused the mother. One day, when the mother was away, the girl was raped by her drunk father. She was found bleeding and in severe pain in the house by the neighbors.â€
The African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect reported this story on June 16, 2014 in an online article. Even though the police arrested the abusive father, he stayed in jail for just four months and the case was â€œkilledâ€ by the family.
In September 2014, the Standard Newspaper reported that teachers from Homabay County had sexually abused and impregnated 200 pupils. Similar stories from other counties have appeared in Kenyaâ€™s major dailies over the past six months.
Considering only a fraction of such cases end up in newspaper reports, it is not surprising that the first national survey of violence against children in Kenya in 2014 reported that about a third (31.9%) of Kenyan women experience at least one episode of sexual abuse before reaching age 18.
According to the world health organization (WHO), child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent.
This definition covers all forms of abuse and exploitation of children as long as they are of a sexual nature, including completed nonconsensual sex acts, attempted nonconsensual sex acts, abusive sexual contact, and noncontact sexual abuse. It also includes what the Sexual Offences Act, 2006 of Kenya defines as indecent actâ€”any intentional non-penetrative act, which causes any contact between the genital organs of a person, his or her breasts and buttocks with that of another person; or exposure or display of any pornographic material to any person against his or her will.
The sexual health consequences of child sexual abuse are also well defined. However, beyond the obvious sexual health consequences of child sexual abuseâ€”increased risk of HIV, sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, early sexual initiation, repeat sexual abuseâ€”there are more deleterious psychological health consequences. Unfortunately, many of these psychological consequences are not recognized or given attention in much of Africa.
Despite the elaborate legal and scholarly definition, a proper understanding of child sexual abuse must include the social meanings given to the â€œsexual actsâ€ labelled abusive. These meanings determine and explain community perceptions and response or non-response to child sexual abuse. The oxford dictionary defines abuse as â€œ[to] use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse.â€ What is considered â€œproper useâ€ is a function of social meanings, and is best demonstrated in the manner in which society exercises power and authority.
Because parents, other adult caregivers and teachers are the primary symbol of power and authority, their lack of regard for childrenâ€™s privacy, their use of physical abuse as means to teach discipline, and their preference for torture and emotional abuse for correction may play a major role in perpetuating social meanings of abuse, and normalizing â€œmisuse.â€ Consequently, children are brought up understanding abuse as something they ought to go through as part of normal functioning of society.
They do not recognize it as abuse, they may not relate the consequences with the experience, and they are less likely to report it to anyone. Moreover, as they grow up, violence and abuse become proper and socially acceptable ways to engage with others that they feel they have physical superiority over.
It is no wonder our adult relationships, including marital relationships, are characterized by â€œnormalizedâ€ abuse. In the 2008/9 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, at least 47% of ever-married women reported having experienced spousal or partner physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
Some have called for stiffer penalties for child sexual abuse. Whereas I agree with these calls, a review of Kenyan laws shows that we have some of the most progressive anti-sexual abuse laws in Africa. As we seek a better legal framework , we need to strengthen implementation of existing laws.
A sustainable solution however cannot solely rely on the legal and justice systems. Suppose we arrested all the men perpetrators, the women who sexually abuse boys and everyone who failed in their duty to report cases of child sexual abuse, will we have anyone left to implement the arrests, to try the cases and to manage the prisons?
We must make it socially unacceptable for anyone, not just a man, to resort to violence and abuse of any kind as a way of addressing a controversy. We can do this through leadership, by not allowing individuals to claim unfairness when we isolate them from leadership positions because of credible sexual or physical abuse accusations.
Most importantly, we can address the root causes of child sexual abuse through our schools and homes, which provide the ideal environment for modeling respect for each other. I choose these two because they steward our children during the most formative stage of their lives.
Schools should provide an environment supportive of healthy competition, encouraging and celebrating of divergent opinion, and respectful of the most vulnerable. At home, parents and caregivers will need to structure a protective environment that prevents all forms of abuse, and responds timeously to all suspected and disclosed abuse. As individuals, we must provide all the support we can to people close to us who experience sexual abuse.
Finally, sexual violence activists must begin considering men as partners rather than as targets. Men are fathers, brothers, husbands, bosses, leaders. Men are also perpetrators and victims. Some men such as fathers, doctors and police officers are in positions of determining any action against alleged perpetrators.
Furthermore, survivors of sexual abuse need the comfort of trusted men to overcome the trauma and to erase the picture of an abusive life. We can achieve much by engaging instead of confronting each other. If you have children as beautiful as mineâ€”ALL children are beautifulâ€”then you need to make prevention and reporting of all and any cases of child sexual abuse your priority.