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Just as we must condemn homophobia and support ‘the rights of consenting individuals to privacy in their sexual relations’, we must also grant far greater attention to the sexual abuse of children, argues Patricia Daley.

The controversy over sexuality in Africa today rests essentially on the legality or acceptability of sexual practices that deviate from the norm. Academics now use the term ‘heteronormativity’ to describe those views that see gender purely in the binary categories of men and women and sexual acts as normal only if occurring in a heterosexual relationship. One could argue that, in some African societies, hegemonic voices are trying to assert heteronormativity as naturally African – as homosexuality is represented as deviant, criminal and punishable by death. There is now a vigorous campaign against homophobia by activists and academics – challenging the continued use of colonial laws that criminalise same-sex relationships and the trend towards denying the human rights of homosexuals by contemporary regimes.

Some argue that this campaign has become a cause célèbre in the West. Concurrently, there is another vigorous campaign going on against the sexual abuse of women in conflict and post-conflict countries. In this respect, the Congo is now dubbed the ‘rape capital of the world’. Numerous studies have been commissioned by a range of policy-makers from the UN, NGOs, development agencies, British parliamentarians and the American military – that is, AFRICOM (HRW 2009; APPG 2008; NAI/SIDA 2010). Some of us welcome the attention to this grave problem, but, nevertheless, question the motives of some of those who intervene.

While condemning homophobia and championing the rights of consenting individuals to privacy in their sexual relations, as well as calling to action efforts to prevent the destruction of women’s lives caused by rape in the eastern Congo, we need to understand that there is another aspect to this problem which is not sufficiently pursued by scholars and activists. For me, this is the sexual abuse of children, which is often termed ‘defilement’ in civil codes. The fact that in some cultures young girls are forced to marry below the age of majority is no justification for the lack of attention.

Most African newspapers will report the rape of babies often committed by a community member, a relative or even a parent. The statistics in some countries are quite shocking. However, we have not fully addressed the sexual abuse of children placed in institutions such as schools, seminaries and orphanages. In the West, paedophilia has taken on the form of a witch hunt, with many states having a sex offender registry and those found guilty having to go into hiding. While I am against the hysteria that follows such cases in the West, and would be concerned if paedophilic homosexual activities are conflated with the practices engaged in by consenting adults, I am of the view that the sexual abuse of children in Africa is not given the serious consideration that it deserves. I hope activists reading this can prove me wrong.

There is so much rhetoric against abortion in many African societies – as exemplified in July 2010 constitutional debates in Kenya – yet those campaigning against women’s right to choose do not stand up against the abuse of young girls by senior men in their community, whether school teachers, uncles, fathers or religious leaders. Individual men can be prosecuted; this is often only possible if the victim is female. However, as shown in cases in Europe or America, where the perpetrators are adult authority figures in established institutions, victims are cowered and take years, often until adulthood, to reveal their experiences. This is also the result of an enabling environment in the society, a willingness of the state and the society to openly deal with such issues. In Africa, the hysteria around homosexuality has not helped such victims.

So, what of institutions? The Catholic Church in Europe and America has recognised the possibilities of children in seminaries and churches in the West being abused by priests, and has pledged to investigate such cases – even historical ones (BBC News 2010). However, there was no reference to the experience of young people in mission and boarding schools in Africa. It is, of course, difficult to research, due to the lack of documentation, and when such abuses are committed by foreigners, say Europeans, and come to light, they are hushed up and the culprits are quickly sent home. Newspapers may report conjectures, but neither the state nor the governing bodies of these institutions appear to have interests in pursuing these cases in a way that would enable victims to come forward. In my travels across the continent, I have collected numerous anecdotal evidence of abuse of local children by aid workers, priests and others, who when caught are simply relocated to another country or continent so as not to discredit the institution or its donor organisation. We know Africa is a location for sex tourism and, in the colonial past, for those fleeing the strictures of European society. We are also aware that large numbers of African children are caught up in child-trafficking to destinations where they suffer all forms of abuse.

Paedophilia is a crime irrespective of where it is committed. Institutions that take our children should provide a safe environment for them to grow. It would be interesting if the Catholic Church were to set an example in Africa by showing a commitment to investigate and make public such cases rather than seeing such acts as private to the individual (Menya & Liguorip 2011). A start has been made by Bishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg, who was reported to have said: ‘I know that the Church in Africa is inflicted by the same scourge’ (Tostevin 2010).

I would not like to focus this discussion purely on Catholic priests, since school teachers, Anglican and Pentecostal pastors also abuse their powers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many such moral authorities avoid penetrative sex, believing that other forms of sexual activities do not break their moral codes. Newspaper and NGO reports suggest that sexual abuse of school girls is institutionalised in Africa (Katerere 2010; Museka 2010; Foran 2010; Quaicoe & Dibando 2009; 2008). This is a consequence of the lack of concerted efforts by governments to protect the vulnerable in their institutions.

With respect to those charged to protect the vulnerable, in 2008, the Save the Children Fund published a report on the sexual abuse of children by aid workers and peace-keepers – placed in positions of authority and parading vast material resources amidst the destitution and despair of the locals. According to the report:

‘Significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continue in emergencies, with much of it going unreported. The victims include orphans, children separated from their parents and families, and children in families dependent on humanitarian assistance’ (p. 1).

The multi-country research project revealed abuse conducted by ‘23 humanitarian, peace-keeping and security organizations’ (p. 8). The report noted the efforts being made by the UN to stamp out such practices and argues that a major constraint to further action is the under-reporting of such cases by children and adults. It claims that under-reporting is due to several factors, such as stigmatisation, loss of material assistance provided by perpetrators, threat of retribution and retaliation, lack of effective legal services and lack of faith in response, and not knowing how to report such abuse. There is also the normalisation of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict contexts, such that despite the reported horrors of the rape of women in the DR Congo, there is still an implicit assumption in some quarters that African girls, even in such vulnerable circumstances, have heightened sexuality and are exercising choice and thus power – since they may nab a peace-keeper or NGO worker as a husband.

Orphanages, churches and schools, especially boarding schools, are institutions catering for vulnerable young people. There should be more effective mechanisms whereby those in positions of authority, who violate their responsibility to protect minors, are brought to justice.

The academic and activist debate on sex and sexuality in Africa has to widen to protect the rights of the vulnerable – those who are forced into non-consensual sex – whether adults or children, as well as those adults participating in consensual same-sex relationships. To date, there is a glaring gap in academic research on the sexual abuse of children, whether historical or contemporary (Lalor 2004). Such research is needed urgently, especially when more and more children are abandoned and the phenomenon of street children has grown rapidly in post-conflict and post-adjustment contexts. Scholars and activists need to challenge claims of heteronormativity at the same time as articulating how we should interpret what constitutes deviant sexual behaviour in African societies. There is ample evidence in the West that abused children, without support, often end up becoming abusers themselves. If, as newspapers suggest, sexual abuse of children is on the rise in Africa, then we will end up with societies in which a significant proportion of individuals have perverse and damaging views of the sexual act. This can only lead to greater inter-personal violence.


* Dr Patricia Daley is a lecturer in human geography at the Fahamu Trust.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.


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Erikson Baaz, M. & M. Stern (2010) The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of the Complexity of Sexual violence in the DRC. Nordiska Afrikainstitutet/SIDA.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2009) Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: Sexual Violence and Military Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Lalor, K. (2004). ‘Child sexual abuse in Tanzania and Kenya’. Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 28 (8), 2004 pp.833-84

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Save the Children Fund (2008) No one to turn to’: the under-reporting of child sexual abuse by aid workers and peace-keepers. London, UK.

Tostevin, M. (2010) ‘Africa also suffers sex abuse by priest: bishop’, Reuters. 8 April 2010.

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