Every year, more than 400 million children around the world are sexually exploited or abused, according to a new report by Economist Impact.
Often, the abuse and exploitation is kept a secret due to shame and stigma, allowing the crimes to continue unabated.
The report, “Out of the Shadows Global Index 2022”, shows that while some countries in Africa have put together stronger systems for response to abuse and exploitation of children, the systems mainly kick in after children have been harmed hence do not protect the young ones against predation.
Of the 60 countries studied, which account for 85 percent of the world’s children population, the UK, France and Sweden scored the highest in prevention of and response to child abuse.
The index reviews five pillars on prevention and responding to child abuse: Protective legislation; policy and programmes; national capacity and commitment; support services and recovery; and justice processes by countries.
In Africa, only South Africa made it to the top 20 countries with successful policies. South Africa is the only country that ranks top 10 across all the five categories of the index, providing the strongest example of a holistic approach to addressing child sexual exploitation and abuse.
It is one of only 10 countries that have specialised courts for cases of sexual violence, and one of two countries with comprehensive laws supporting victim-survivors, including enactment of a non-punishment provision for child trafficking victims.
“Crucially, it has also eliminated the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and exploitation cases, paving the way for many more cases to be reported,” the report says.
In East Africa, Kenya performed best, ranking at position 21, while Rwanda was at 27 and Tanzania at 33.
Rwanda proved exceptional among low-income economies in both protective legislation and national capacity and commitment, pushing it to 13th on the prevention pillar.
Overall, Niger and Cameroon emerged as the worst performers, with estimates showing that one in four girls were married before the age of 15 years.
Commenting on the poor showing of East African states, organisations working on children’s rights acknowledged that implementation of legislation remains a challenge.
Tsitsi Matekaire, global lead for ending sexual exploitation at Equality Now, and Paul Odhoch, executive director of Trace Kenya, a Kenya-based NGO fighting trafficking in persons, acknowledged that Kenya has a robust policy framework that addresses child sexual exploitation and abuse. They cite the revised Children Act (2022), the National Plan of Action to Tackle Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (2022-2026), and the National Care Reform Strategy for Children in Kenya (2022-2032).
“We have to commend the Kenya government for fast-tracking these policies in 2022,” Matekaire told The EastAfrican.
But they say lack of awareness on the policies among the public, civil society organisations and government departments impedes implementation.
“The government must accelerate awareness among these stakeholders, which will be a key step to ensuring their implementation and enforcement,” Matekaire said.
“The National Council of Children Services, whose job is to protect children, needs to formulate a public communication and programme to create awareness about the problem,” added Adhoch.
He noted that in Kenya, most abuse happens in households – where children are exploited by relatives – making it hard to crack cases as families are unwilling to surrender perpetrators to face the law.
The digital era has complicated the fight against child sexual exploitation and abuse, the two rights advocates acknowledge.
“There is an emerging trend of online abuse in Kenya... so children are exposed to a lot of harmful online content. Also, the anonymous nature of some harmful digital content makes catching child abuse perpetrators hard,” said Adhoch.
Matekaire noted that involvement of the children themselves is necessary in protection mechanisms. While most African countries have specific national action plans or strategies to address child sexual exploitation, the report found that these do not include participation from children and adolescents.
“Those from marginalised communities are especially critical in adding the much-needed perspectives and solutions to prevent and respond to exploitation and abuse,” she said.
“Kenya needs to adopt and implement legislative, judicial, administrative, educative and other appropriate measures. For example, online and tech-enabled child sexual exploitation and abuse will require tech professionals to develop bespoke innovations to prevent production and sharing of child sexual abuse content in the digital space, as well as detecting and removing it,” said Matekaire.
Be more assertive
She calls on the police, prosecutors and Judiciary to be more assertive in tackling online sexual crimes against children.
“There is room to strengthen responses in this area, for example, by improving collaborations between the children officers, who are first responders, and the DCI in the investigation of child sexual abuse and exploitation cases,” Matekaire said.
Adhoch sees an opportunity in harnessing digital and social media for awareness campaigns. He says East Africans can be mobilised around advocacy campaigns, especially when cases of child abuse are publicised.
“Cases that shock the public can be used to create awareness around the crimes and push for justice for the victims,” he said.
The number of countries that have laws preventing adults from engaging in sexual activity with a minor have increased almost 10 percent, although seven countries that prohibit sexual activity with a girl under the age of consent do not offer the same protection to boys.
Uganda is among a handful of countries with laws that specifically prohibit engaging in sexual activities with a minor who has a disability, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has set aggravated punishments for the same.
The continent does not have a single country with programmes for people troubled with sexual thoughts about minors.
Additionally, since 2019 – when there were 39 countries with a national strategy or action plan that specifically addressed child sexual exploitation and abuse – there has since been a 36 percent decrease in this number, with many countries’ programmes having expired, possibly slowed down by Covid-19.
“Over 40 percent of countries assessed for the index either do not explicitly define ‘child pornography’ or ‘child sexual abuse material’ in national legislation, or their definitions do not meet international standards,” the report notes.
The report raises alarm over the present-day borderless nature of sexual crimes against children, with technology facilitating the exploitation.
“The problem has been exacerbated everywhere by the Covid-19 pandemic. Around the world, people turned to the internet for work, school and entertainment, provoking a surge of online child sexual material, with 2021 being the worst year on record.”
The Internet Watch Foundation said that in 2021, it investigated more reports of suspected child sexual abuse than in the first 15 years of its existence.
Nearly half of the countries (45 percent) do not have a designated specialised law enforcement unit to respond to and counter online CSEA crimes. When they do, over one-quarter of specialised units are not supported by the services of a forensic unit.
While two-thirds of assessed countries have developed legislation that prohibits showing or sending sexually explicit material to a child online (67 percent), just over one-third of countries have legislation targeted at online grooming (35 percent).
Additional reporting by Jackson Mutinda