AFRICA: UN report exposes widespread abuse of children

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[NAIROBI, 28 May 2007] - Efforts to eradicate abuse of children in Africa should concentrate on fighting gender-based violence, including rape, which exposes youngsters to HIV/AIDS, mistreatment at school and harmful traditional practices, a senior United Nations official said.

"Within the region, two out of three new HIV/AIDS infections in the 15 to 24 age group are in girls or women," said Per Engeback, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, on 28 May. "The face of HIV is a woman's face, a girl's face."

Engeback was speaking during the launch in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, of the UN World Report on Violence Against Children. It was prepared by an independent expert, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, for the UN Secretary-General.

In Eastern and Southern Africa, sexual violence and widespread poverty had exacerbated the spread of HIV/AIDS, with average prevalence rates among young women in the 15-24 age group two to six times higher than for boys, according to the study.

The region has an estimated 12 million children orphaned by AIDS [one or both parents], many of whom head households and are vulnerable to exploitation. Kenya is estimated to have at least one million AIDS orphans.

In Swaziland, the study said, orphans were twice as likely to engage in child labour, making up to 50 percent of the country's under-age sex workers. Kenya's child sex workers, mainly in tourist destinations, number between 10,000 and 30,000. An estimated 126 million children were involved in hazardous physical work in 2004, according to the report.

Violence at home

Violence against children cut across cultures and diverse backgrounds, with most children witnessing violent family situations also frequently brutalised, the report said.

In a study of 200 Tanzanian children living in the streets of Dar es Salaam, the capital, 62 percent gave parental fights, cruelty of step parents or abuse as their reason for leaving home.

Globally, at least 150 million girls and 73 million boys experienced forced sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual violence in 2002, the study said. Sexual and gender-based violence was common on the street, in schools, communities and work places. The survivors of at least 40 percent of the 55,000 rape cases reported in South Africa in 2004-2005 were younger than 18, Engeback said.

Children were also exposed to sexual violence in schools, with frequent reports of teachers assaulting children, who were often too intimidated to report the abuse or were unaware of their rights.

Poverty, bias inhibit schooling

At least 50 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa did not complete primary school for various reasons, including poverty and bias in favour of male children. Lack of education perpetuated a vicious cycle where ignorance exposed them to sexual abuse.

A survey carried out in Botswana showed that 11 percent of girl students feared sexual harassment could force them out of school, according to the report. "Violence against children is frequently legal, approved and in some cases even state authorised," said Engeback.

In many countries in Africa, harmful traditional practices such as early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) remained of particular concern. About three million girls undergo FGM annually, with Ethiopia having a high prevalence of 80 percent for women between 15 and 49. "This denies them a right to health, dignity and sometimes life," he said.

At least 48 percent of girls were married off before attaining the legal age of consent, putting their lives at risk, he added.

Children in conflict were especially vulnerable to violence, often being recruited as child soldiers or as providers of sex for combatants.

State responsibility

The study calls on states to take primary responsibility for preventing abuses by providing a robust legal framework capable of "prohibiting all forms of violence against children whenever it occurs and whoever is the perpetrator". Justice systems were often to blame for failing to prioritise child abuse and being lenient to offenders.

The executive director of the African Network for the Prevention and Protection Against Child Abuse and Neglect, Philista Onyango, added that violence against children required a multi-faceted response involving the government and civil society, among other stakeholders.

"There is also a need for the creation of regional and national mechanisms for the implementation of recommendations," she said.

With most children ignorant of their rights, Kenya’s Vice-President, Moody Awori, said there was a need to empower children on how to protect themselves, involve them in matters affecting them and harmonising laws relating to children.

"Understanding children is critical to shaping responses relevant to their needs," Awori said.

The study, which included the contributions of 133 countries, 18 from the eastern and the southern African region, also incorporated ideas contributed by children.

Further information

pdf: http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=72407

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