Ignoring child sexual abuse effectively condones it. Period.

The levels of sexual abuse of children in South Africa are far worse than elsewhere. It's a commonly held view, but an erroneous one according to the recently published Optimus Study: Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa (PDF, 3 MB). The study, together with previous Optimus Studies in Switzerland and China (PDF, 3 MB), found that in all three countries around one-third of children and adolescents report exposure to some form of sexual abuse. So South Africa appears to be in line with the rest of the world.

This is nothing to be proud of. It will be of no consolation to the victims or their families. And it is not a problem confined to South Africa, Switzerland and China. UNICEF's Hidden in Plain Sight report details how child abuse continues to impact every country, culture and community across the world with devastating physical, emotional, social, and economic consequences.
If we do nothing to stop these vile practices we will be betraying the trust our children, and their children, place in us. No matter who we are or where we live it's time to be angry, outraged, loud and bold. It's time to stand up and shout "enough!"

In South Africa, it is encouraging that the government has adopted forward-looking policies and legislation to protect children, but this has not curbed the alarming rates of sexual violence against children. According to the South African Police Service, 18,524 cases of sexual abuse were reported in 2013 /14. That's 51 every day. And this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg as the vast majority of abuse goes unreported and unrecorded.
Sexual abuse remains hidden for many reasons. Young children lack the capacity to report it, and older children may fear retaliation by perpetrators. Parents may be the perpetrators, or may remain silent when violence is committed by other family members or by powerful community figures.
The lack of data about sexual violence is a key challenge to designing effective responses. Without it, no government can plan effectively or systematically assess the success or failure of their efforts. In South Africa, the Optimus Study will help narrow this information gap. It is the first nationally representative study of child maltreatment in South Africa and reveals the extent and impact of child sexual abuse and other forms of maltreatment.

The findings show that sexual abuse is widespread and possibly worse than previously estimated. It found that one in three children have had some experience of some form of sexual abuse, which often persists throughout childhood as part of everyday life. Up to half of children and young people reporting violence experience repeated victimisation. One in ten children who have experienced sexual abuse by an adult known to them had this experience four or more times.
The data also shows that boys and girls are equally vulnerable to sexual abuse, although the forms might vary. This challenges current thinking, which usually focuses on the particular vulnerability of girls. Gender is important, but the motivations for violence towards children are not all gender-driven. Girls and boys are targets because they are vulnerable and dependent upon caregivers for survival and protection. The study points to a critical gap in current thinking that needs to be taken into account – the experiences of boys.

It's time we paid attention, it's time for children’s voices to be heard, it's time we say under no circumstances is violence against children justifiable. The good news is that we can do something about this. With sufficient commitment and investment, creative approaches to prevention can make a real difference. But we must support parents and caregivers struggling in poverty and against adversity. We must challenge cultures of masculinity that favour aggressive sexual behaviour over responsibility, care and respect. And yes it will take time. But it can be done through an approach that is grounded in local realities, is gender-sensitive, engages government, civil society and local communities, and, most importantly, is centered on children themselves.

When we hear about cases of sexual abuse we often ask how someone can do that to a child. What we should be asking is why is this being allowed to happen in the first place. So let's be the ones who say we will not accept sexual abuse, or any kind of child abuse. Let's be the ones to say we are not satisfied with the status quo. Let us be outraged, let's be outspoken, and together let's put an end to child abuse once and for all.

About the Optimus Study series

Sexual victimisation of children and adolescents is the cause of enormous suffering and considerable health-related costs. Despite this, we know almost nothing about its scale, form and context. The Optimus Study: Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa was commissioned by the UBS Optimus Foundation and conducted by the University of Cape Town and the Centre for Justice and Crime prevention. This study, together with two previous Optimus Studies in Switzerland and China, will help inform the debate and shape the direction of child-protection efforts globally. All three studies are available at http://www.optimusstudy.org