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FEATURE: Ending child sexual abuse in Africa hamstrung by religion, poverty

Local News
Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence

TEN years have gone by and Chido Mpira (now 19) has adamantly refused to join the family when they go for church gatherings every week.

While the community never understood her, her immediate family did, however they had agreed that Chido’s demise was a secret that should be kept within the family.

But Chido who has spent the last decade to herself has vowed she would rather die than attend church as she has been subjected to rape by her church minister at the tender age of nine.

Her family refused to report him for fear of touching the “anointed” one of God.

As she narrates her story, Chido who is still far from healing, wishes governments employ mechanisms that tackles religious related sexual abuse cases.

“My family is very close to the pastors’ family so I literally grew up there and my parents would sometimes leave me there. I had often noted that when the pastor was around, my friends would take turns to get ”prayed for by the pastor” in his room. Each Day was a different person so when my turn came I never hesitated only to get raped at such tender age. My family didn’t do anything about it, rather they got money from the pastor and we relocated to this city. It’s an issue that has never been discussed in this house to date. Now that I’m grown up, I only wish I knew where to get that pastor and report him,” a teary Chido narrates.

Chidos’ story mirrors that of numerous African children who have been sexually abused but never got justice on the basis of religious beliefs.

While there is general data for child sexual abuse cases, there is still a gap when it comes to religious related cases as most cases are swept under the carpet.

For example in a Uganda Police Annual Report Of 2021shows that during the year a total of 14,436 cases of defilement were reported to Police compared to 14,134 cases reported in 2020. 3,783 were aggravated defilement.

Zambia Police  revealed that it recorded 540 cases of child defilement from 6,915 cases of Gender Based Violence reported countrywide in the first quarter of 2022. About 75% of girls had been sexually abused countrywide for the second quarter of 2022.

In Zimbabwe statistics from the police indicate that 58% of all rape cases reported between Januaryto Septemberv 2022  involved minors.

In a number of African countries, there has been a series of cases of rampant abuse of teenage girls, early marriages as well as deaths every year to the detriment of abuse of children’s rights.

Religions such as Catholic, Protestant, Animist and Muslim are also at the centre of child marriage.

Again, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents is one of the most underreported crimes, and while there are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, one of the main reasons is that the abuser and the abuse survivor are often in a close relationship.

Analysts have found that it is rare that a stranger commits this act as it is commonly committed by family members, friends of the family, teachers, ‘clergy’ of all religions and other persons being in loco parentis.

Given this scenario ,the African Union goal  to achieve the Promotion of the Rights of Children in Africa (Agenda 2063 Aspiration 6, African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children is now being threatened as these  issues remain unabated.

Under the Charter, nations are obliged to provide protection to children against all forms of abuse, discrimination, neglect and exploitation. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) has been ratified or acceded to by 53 African Union member states

However, the AU over the years has been making concerted efforts to curb these challenge and it has a number of initiatives including the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the AU Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa (SDGEA) among others.

The adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) in July 2003 was a major landmark in the understanding of the rights of women in Africa. According to the AU, this instrument constitutes a model and an endless source of inspiration for the women in Africa with 42 African countries out of 55 having ratified the Maputo Protocol to date.

While member AU countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, research has however shown that  that a number of countries are still struggling to implement policies that protects children from child sexual abuse.

Religion, poverty and CSA

In Uganda, CSA is extremely high and has been noted to be happening in all the regions on a daily basis with children defiled on lonely paths to school and to the wells by both unknown persons and people known to them.

While poverty has played a crucial role in CSA cases  as  both girls and boys  yield to pressure of abusers who have the money to procure goodies and niceties which the children do not have,a children protection and trainer in Uganda , Carol Bankusha  told  the Independent that  that unregulated worship centers especially  in the rural areas  had become havens of CSA .

“ Some of the unregulated worship centers that spring up at any one time and even close without causing any suspicion to the  local communities especially those in rural areas, where law enforcers are likely to delay in reaching out to them so as to know their main goals and objectives. Such religious bodies have easy access to the needy population and will therefore announce or popularize anything that can easily be an attraction to the communities including children. Children again are easily coerced and lured into CSA at any time; but more so during the night time if such religious leaders choose to hold night crusades or even offer accommodation to the unsuspecting children. “she said

Managing partner at  Tumuhairwe Advocates, Christine Tumuhairwe attributed CSA to the Catholic Church where the church exploits opportunities to sexually harass children as they are meant to live without partners for life. However she was quick to point to lack of detection in other religious sects.

“  I might not talk about the role of religion. But I know this is most common amongst the Catholic faith where those involved in church exploit this opportunity to sexually harass children as they are meant to live without partners for life. However this has not been very common in Uganda unless it has gone undetected” she said

The lack of data on CSA  is also a cause of concern for Zambia with the church flagging their worries.

“There is a lack of data especially on children’s rights, it is a major concern that there is inadequate data from institutions working on such issues including from religious bodies. Most institutions do not have the comprehensive disaggregated data and if they do it is subjective and not consistent with that of the nation which is also difficult to access,” said  ZambiaCouncil of Churches Emmanuel Chikoya.

Chikoya said the church was very worried and addressing the root causes of child sexual abuse such as harmful traditional practices , parental negligence and sexual abuse being a concealed phenomenon can see the country overcome CSA.

“Religion has a role to play in child abuse in Zambia in that some religious institutions have been counted among the formal organizations in which child abuse has occurred and in which accusations have been covered up, to focus solely on religion and also to protect the image of the institution by covering up cases. Some cases of child sexual abuse have actually been committed by people in the church who are supposed to be protecting the children. Other false religious practices such as cleansing a child by having carnal knowledge have also contributed to child sexual abuse. Poverty can also be linked to child abuse because it is evidenced in multiple deprivations which include the income poverty of the family and lack of basic needs and services such as food, water and sanitation.” He said.

Religious groupings of a Pentecostal nature were running as cults that have been accused of promoting sexual abuse of children in Zambia according to executive director ,Media Network on Child Rights and Development, Henry Kabwe .

Kabwe said a number of girls and women were being  lured into sexual activities as a way to get out of poverty  while  sleeping with the 'man of God' had become a way to get their breakthrough out of poverty.

“Poverty has driven some small girls into sex work and they patronise places where they sell alcohol to access men who can pay for sex. There are so many cases that are recorded but are buried because of corruption,parents or guardians would rather get paid for the case of child sexual abuse than hold the perpetrator accountable. Efforts being made by the District Child Protection Committees are positive but most of these remain unknown and unaccountable to the addressing of child rights violations.” Said

Child rescue foundation CEO ,Anastacia Banda posits  that in Zambia religions have become vulnerable to sexual child abuse just like any other group in society.

She noted that just as religion plays an integral part in many people's lives, people believe that religious leaders help them find purpose in life and a lot of people living in poverty find comfort in these leaders and so they trust and respect them.

“When sexual abuse occurs most victims don't report because they are scared of being discriminated and that no one would believe them. Most children and women are usually victims of sexual abuse in churches unfortunately it is not easy to quantify the prevalence of abuse because victims prefer not to say and other church leaders choose not to say even when they see signs.” She said

Sexual abuse, especially of children, has  alsobecome an epidemic in Nigeria with horrifying statistics of victims shooting up the curve. According to the United Nations, 11,200 Nigerian women and children were raped in 2020. In another report by the American Centers for Disease Control, approximately  one in six boys and one in four  girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.

An academic paper religion as a pretext for the abuse of the Nigerian child shows that child abuse under the guise of any religion, like child abuse occasioned by any other factors, is morally reprehensible but common practice in Nigeria.

While state chairperson of Nigeria association of women journalists, plateau state, Nene Dung said the major driver of CSA in Nigeria has been poverty, the religious factor had manifested itself in cases of child marriages that is permitted by certain faiths.

“People marry off their daughters at early ages to reduce the number of mouths to feed. Many religious leaders frown at child sexual abuse but the real bite is not visible in their sermons to discourage the act,” she said

Dung also attributed to lack of data in relation to these cases saying documenting some of these cases have been difficult.

In Zimbabwe, last year the country lost teenage girls who died giving birth in religion related issues, which was however a tip of the iceberg as these issues span back to decades but have usually been swept under the carpet.

Zimbabwe council of churches (ZCC) secretary general Wilfred Dimingu said the church was worried about the role religion is playing in these issues.

“We have so any cases of sexual abuse linked to religion. We have heard of girls who died at shrines giving birth to children of an elderly man in the church. As ZCC we believe such kind of behaviour is actually criminal and should be punished. The bible does not allow such but instead teaches marriage between one man and woman, who are both adults. Such practices in the name of religion, particularly Christianity is highly condemned. There is no justification for a young girl and an older man to be together in whatever union. In the case of poverty, there should be ways to get away with poverty without robbing these children of their future.People who violate the rights of innocent children should be incarcerated.” He said.

REPSSI Programme Manager Johnson Matenga said some religious beliefs and practices were detrimental to the development of children in Zimbabwe with some children ending up in child marriages because of religious beliefs such as the prophetic dreams.

Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) Hope Dunhira believes that child sexual abuse cannot be separated from child marriages.

“Many causes can be attributed to these child sexual abuses such as poverty, some individual beliefs, some ‘church indoctrinated’ beliefs as well as societal norms that accept child marriage and see them as normal. A lot of child sexual abuse cases have been linked to religion and mostly the apostolic community. With research stating that the apostolic community makes up approximately 38% of the Zimbabwean population (of 2018) which has most probably gone up as of that time due to the polygamous set up of this community. This is cause for concern as issues of child sexual abuse have been rampant.,” she said

While religion has played a huge part in CSA within all communities, Muslim communities have not been an exception.

Sadly this community has been seen to intentionally and religiously harbour most of these crimes without exposing them.

Constitutional Law Consultant Eshaam Palmer said possible reason for such acts being ‘swept under the carpet’ is the misinterpretation of relevant provisions of the shariah.

“There is a belief that if someone commits a sinful act then one should keep it a secret and seek forgiveness from Allah. Allah says in Surah al-Nisa (verse 148): ‘Allah does not like that evil should be uttered in public, except by one who has been wronged.’” He said

This has been the case in Chad where girls are the main victims of rape and other types of sexual violence.

Religions such as Catholic, Protestant, Animist and Muslim are also at the centre of child marriage.

Religious practices sometimes lead to Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C), which is experienced by 44% of women aged between 15 and 49 years old, and polygamy where girls are married as third or fourth wives.

A study on sexual violence  found out that Child Marriage and sexual violation prevailed  at 60.6 % .

Although Chad has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, implementing them has proven to be very difficult as the  children in  Chad are faced with many issues such as  lack of education, lack of access to healthcare, poverty, child labour and sexual abuse.

Morrocco has also shown poor performance with regard to human rights with rampant sexual abuse of children within the country and laws for penalizing paedophiles remain far from effective. For a highly religious country, this leaves a lot to be desired.

A growing number of Moroccan children are victims of sexual abuse.

A report by the coalition against sexual abuse of children (COCASSE) found that 70 children are sexually abused every day in Morocco.

“The majority of victims were aged between 5 and 14 and that many of the reported abuse cases were against boys (69 %).The report studied a total of 360 sexual offences against children between 2010 and 2015 and has found that perpetrators are often members of the family. Sexual offences against minors are also committed by relatives, neighbors, strangers and teachers.’ Reported Morocco world news.

Way forward

However all hope is not lost as experts who spoke to the Independent proffered solutions for African leaders to curb this cancer, chief among them a budgetary allocation for this cause which is not prevalent in most African countries.

Matenga said  governments must allocate   budgetary   support   to ensure   the implementation and enforcement    of legislation to protect vulnerable children while the religious leaders need to be need to be trained   on   child rights   and the legal framework   so that   they are able   to protect the rights of children    and cascade   to the same to the church   members.

Makoya said allocations to child protection should be prioritized and should be itemized in the budget to enable improved tracking while create platforms for children activists to engage government leaders, faith leaders  and traditional leaders, in discussions or debates on measures to protect children from sexual abuse.

“There is a need for all stakeholders including the Government, the church, civil society, the private sector and communities to work together to fight the scourge.Raising awareness on its own will not reduce child sexual abuse, it needs to be accompanied by improving access to quality services and expanding options for future growth and development to end poverty.” he said

Dimingu suggested that government, policy makers and religious leaders should work together to address this monster which has invaded the country.

 “We want the leader to come together. Government leader and policy makers should come up with laws that deter would be offered of sexual abuse and the offenders of the girl children. They also need to educate the girl to understand these things, the need to defend themselves and report to their elders when these things happen.” He said

Bankusha stressed on law enforcement on the government’s part.

“Law enforcement: In Uganda we have a number of policies that actually address CSA. Uganda enjoys a variety of laws and policies within the social development sector, what the Government should step up is enduring law enforcement such that persons who violate children are reported, prosecuted and convicted. These once implemented will act as deterrent measures to others that plan to harm and hurt children.” She said

Dung said the problem has never been lack of policy and laws but on implementation.

“The child rights law exists in my country. There are states that have domesticated it, while others have not. The challenge is the laws are not implemented. What makes a law strong and powerful, is its ability to prosecute. We are yet to see offenders prosecuted, we are yet to see people go to jail for hurting children. When we begin to see action, then we can say the law is effective. It is not enough for religious leaders to talk about child sexual molestation with just a wave of the hand. They must be intentional about it by quoting relevant scriptures that condemn the act.” he said

Should African countries invests in research on child sexual and enact policies that govern churches and how they operate, experts believe, victory over child sexual abuse is certain.

This story was developed with the support by the African Union through the African Union Agenda 2063 pitch zone awards,a partnership with the African women in Media. It's contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of African Women in Media and the African Union

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