Sexual abuse against children in Ethiopia: Increasingly worrisome

Emnet Assefa

In the second week of March this year, participants of a talk show on Sheger 102.1 FM radio station, the only private FM radio station in Ethiopia, picked up a troubling topic as their agenda: sexual abuses against children in Ethiopia.

A frustrated representative from the Ethiopian Woman Lawyers Association (EWLA), who was part of the discussion, spoke of a recent incident in which a man who has been accused of committing several sexual abuses against a number of small girls and is known by many as such has been released out of jail due to lack of ‘sufficient evidence.’

The word ‘Sufficient evidence’ against child predators in Ethiopia usually mean a laborious procedure that involves victims’ parents, who are often unwilling to come forward to report cases of sexual abuses against their children because it is normally considered a taboo, a report only from police recommended hospitals, which are less than half a dozen, and the police itself, who are often unwilling to see through such cases.

Owing to that, partially, the clear extents of sexual abuses against children in Ethiopia are increasingly getting hard to come by. Coupled with traditional practices of child exploitations of various forms that are socially embedded in most parts of the country and go largely unreported, sexual abuses against children seem they have now become part of the society’s ‘normal life’, says a sociologist at the Addis Ababa University. A 2006 study paper by Save the Children Sweden and The Africa Child Policy Forum on its part states that “violence against children remains a pervasive, but largely ignored issue in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa. This is certainly the case in Ethiopia, where children regularly face humiliating physical punishment and psychological abuse at home, in school and in the community-at-large.”

According to Jibril Jemal of Jimma University, whose research ‘The Child Sexual Abuse Epidemic in Addis Ababa: Some Reflections on Reported Incidents, Psychosocial Consequences and Implications’ was published on Ethiopian Journal of Health Science last year, finding the exact number of child sexual abuse cases is almost impossible and is attributed mostly to factors such as inconsistencies in the definitions given to what constitutes child sexual abuse,  the circumstances it is committed (“complete secrecy”) and failure by victims to report cases of sexual abuses against them as they are “too ashamed to talk about it.” This, says Jibril, “accentuates serious concern.”

Jibril’s paper also referred to a cross-sectional study conducted in Addis Ababa that identified child sexual abuse prevalence rate of 38.5% out of which 29% were committed by victims’ family members. Sixty eight percent of the victims were wronged by adults they knew. This fact reverberates too close to many hearts and ears. Currently, most cases of sexual abuses are filed against adult family members and people who are close to their victims.

Aberash (not her real name) is a mother of three girls aged 11, 7, and 4, who returned to her career as a business woman after a break of 13 years spent in maternity and child care. Aberash’s eldest daughter Sara (not her real name) was sexually abused by her uncle who was entrusted by their mother to take care of his three nieces in their mother’s absence. In an interview with this magazine, Aberash says she didn’t report the case to the police but simply expelled her brother from her house. “I don’t even know where he is now and I am afraid I may lose my relationship with him forever,” she said.

Aberash’s case is a typical example of a new scenario where increasing numbers of mothers are empowered to start their career lives after years of maternity and child care breaks, leaving their children attended by those close family members and relatives.

 One step at a time

A year ago Ethiopia’s Ministry of Justice has established a center called Integrated Care and Justice Centre for Sexually Abused Women and Children (ICCSAW) located inside Ghandi Memorial Hospital. The establishment of the center is aimed at providing medical services for victims of sexual violence including children. It’s a pilot project taking experience from other African countries.

According to figures obtained by this magazine, in the five months since the center went operational in May last year, 111 cases of sexual violence against children between the ages five to 10 were brought to it of which 47 were committed against children under the age of five. The record also shows that children of both sexes are victims of sexual abuses, although the number of abuses against girls outweighs that of boys.

Dr. Sintayehu Takele, Coordinator of the Center, says that most of these sexual abuses are committed by people that the victims identify as their relatives, family members, caretakers, school teachers or guards.

“The cases we are witnessing  every day have made me see the issue from a different angle especially the difference in age groups and the seriousness of the attacks committed against children,” says a nurse working at the center. Another record contains shocking information about children under the age of one who have been reported as victims of sexual violence.

According to Dr. Sintayehu, since the establishment of ICCSAW 809 sexual violence reports against women and children were reported. The number of reports coming in to the center everyday vary between a maximum of 10 and a minimum of three, which is increasing compared to the first few months of the establishment of the center. “We are talking about the tip of the iceberg, this doesn’t tell us the whole story; very few people who are bold enough come and many more are still living with it,” says Dr. Sintayehu.


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