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1 in 5 children in South Africa are victims of sexual abuse new study finds

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Zurich, 31 July 2015 – The findings of a new Optimus Study in South Africa, published today, show that almost 20% of young people are victims of sexual abuse. The figures are higher than the global average, although no worse than the highest rates identified in studies from Australia and other countries in Africa¹. Reporting of sexual abuse varies slightly between young people of different races.The Optimus Study indicates that victims are more likely to have been abused by another child than by an adult. Previous Optimus Studies in Switzerland and China revealed levels of sexual abuse of 15% and 7%, respectively.

Wherever it occurs, child abuse has terrible consequences. The costs to the victim are incalculable, and to their community and country they are immense. And it has been estimated that the cost to the global economy resulting from child abuse could be as high as 7 trillion dollars², far greater than the investment required to prevent much of the abuse against children in all its forms.

Tip of the iceberg: The Optimus Study South Africa and the other studies in the series all confirm that victims of abuse globally are not always reporting the crimes to the authorities³. This means the problem is far greater than has been, or is being acknowledged. Many victims suffer in silence due to cultural or other constraints, and, if they do report abuse, many countries do not have the capacity to record the data accurately or provide the level of support necessary. While helping the victims of abuse is paramount, evidence shows that ‘prevention pays’. It stops abuse from happening in the first place and avoids the terrible consequences for the victims.

The consequences can be catastrophic: The Optimus Studies all show that in addition to the short-term trauma of abuse there are also severe long-term consequences. And research⁴ has shown a strong relationship between abuse during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults. Those who experience abuse have

  • a 4- to 12-fold increase in the risk of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts;
  • a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, an increased likelihood of sexually promiscuous behavior and sexually transmitted disease; and
  • a 1.4- to 1.6-fold increased risk of severe obesity.
  • They are also more likely to suffer from heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, liver disease, and have a shortened life expectancy.

Dr Alexander Butchart, Prevention of Violence Coordinator at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, highlighted the importance of such surveys. “Much violence against children is never reported to the police, health care workers, or child protection authorities. Surveys such as this are therefore the only way to get a good picture of the ‘what, when, where and by whom’ of violence against children. Such information is crucial for designing and monitoring prevention programmes and services for victims”.

Butchart further noted that the WHO Global status report on violence prevention 2014 identified the lack of a nationally representative survey of child maltreatment in South Africa as a big gap, which this survey does much to fill. “The onus now is on government, civil society organizations and researchers to ensure that the survey findings are followed up by concrete prevention action and steps to improve services for victims”, he added.

Phyllis Costanza, CEO UBS Optimus Foundation, said, "Child abuse in all its forms is not acceptable or inevitable, it is preventable. Around the world there is growing public awareness and anger at the scale of such abuse, and studies such as the Optimus Study series provide a solid basis for action, both public and private, to prevent abuse happening in the first place."

Prevention pays, and proven strategies already exist to help governments prevent abuse.

  • Supporting parents with skills to help reduce violence in the home
  • Giving children the skills to cope with challenges without resorting to violence
  • Changing social attitudes and norms that often "hide abuse in plain sight"
  • Encouraging and helping children to seek professional support and report incidents of abuse
  • Implementing laws and policies that protect children and send a strong message to society
  • Understanding more about abuse, where and when it occurs, in what form, and at what ages to help plan and implement effective intervention strategies

Summary of key results from the Optimus Study series

Optimus Study South Africa

  • 19.8% (20.3% male, 19.2% female) reported sexual abuse.
  • The 19.8% rate is higher than the global average of 12.7%¹. The rate in South Africa is, however, very similar to the highest rates identified in the global review: 21.5% for girls in Australia, and 19.3% for boys in Africa.
  • Children were more likely to report abuse by adults they knew than by adult strangers; but they were more likely to have been abused by another child than by an adult.
  • Reporting of sexual abuse also varies slightly between young people of different races. In self-administered questionnaires, 21.2% of colored, 19.7% of black, 17.5% of white and 17% of Indian adolescents disclosed experiences of sexual abuse.

Optimus Study Switzerland

  • 15%. (8%male, 22% female) reported sexual abuse
  • Of these, 27% of girls and 33% of boys said they had been victims at least five times.
  • Adolescents are more likely to experience sexual assault by people of the same age rather than by family members. Almost half of all the students who had at some point been victims of sexual assault with physical contact said that the perpetrator was a current or former boyfriend/girlfriend or a date.
  • Both male and female victims of sexual abuse had a significantly increased risk of committing sexual abuse against others.

Optimus Study China

  • 7% (8% male, 6.4% female) reported sexual abuse
  • This contrasts with the more common finding that girls are more likely than boys to be sexually victimized. Girls were less likely to report sexual abuse than boys. The finding that boys are more likely to experience sexual victimization, however, was not limited to this study. Similar gender differences have been revealed in past studies (Madu & Peltzer, 2000; Yen et al., 2008; Luo et al., 2008; Choo et al., 2011).
  • Understanding more about the underlying causes for this gender distribution is important for planning intervention and prevention programs.


Notes to Editors

The Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa was issued today by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town’s Gender, Health & Justice Research Unit and the Department of Psychology

The Optimus Study series: Sound data about the actual extent, forms, circumstances and possible consequences of child sexual abuse have been almost impossible to come by until now. The UBS Optimus Foundation has set itself the aim of changing this and improving the protection of minors against sexual assault sustainably and for the long term. To this end, it launched the Optimus Study series, an internationally-oriented, large-scale academic project. In various countries representative data about the extent and forms of sexual assault against children and adolescents will be gathered and compared with data from child protection organizations in the relevant countries, This way, the fundamental gaps in the relevant child protection systems are revealed and, based on this, effective prevention and intervention strategies can be developed.

The Optimus Study South Africa study collected information from 9730 adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 years old, stratified between households and schools. Of these, 5635 were interviewed in randomly selected households, while 4095 were interviewed in schools serving the same areas. Questionnaires used in the household and in the school interviews were identical, and in each setting the young person was also given the opportunity to fill in a private questionnaire on their own. It is clear from the data that these self-administered questionnaires (particularly in schools) yielded the highest rates of reporting, and are therefore regarded as the most accurate.

The research bulletin published today is not the final research report on the findings of this national study. A comprehensive publication of the research findings will follow that will also include information about incidence of child maltreatment, perpetrators, risk factors and child protection agency responses. This bulletin is instead a summary of the study’s key findings about prevalence. It shows that South African children and adolescents experience high levels of child maltreatment (abuse and neglect) and violence, and thus highlights the critical need for a national (re)focus on both prevention and intervention.

About the UBS Optimus Foundation: Our vision is simple: a world where all children reach their full potential. To make this a reality, we concentrate on high-impact projects that help ensure children are safe, healthy, educated and ready for their future. We break down barriers that prevent children from thriving by funding innovative programs in places where children face adversity. We currently support 128 programs across four continents reaching 1.8 million children directly.

UBS clients have easy access to our experts in Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. Furthermore, we have the ability to increase the reach of donations substantially by leveraging them through our global network, which includes international donors and funding partnerships, and matching by UBS. Because all our administrative costs are covered by UBS, our donors know that 100 percent of their contributions will go directly to programs that support children.

Our grant-making specialists apply a rigorous, evidence-based approach to selecting projects aimed at delivering measurable results. As a result, our donors can be confident that their investment will be closely monitored in an effort to achieve the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children.

A preliminary draft of the report's findings is available at The full report will be published within the next few weeks.

UBS Optimus Foundation media contacts
Ian Welle-Skitt: +41-44-235 90 49 email
Pierre-Guillaume Kopp: +41-44-237 27 89 email

University of Cape Town Press Office
Azwi Mufamadi: +27 21 650 5427 email