THE case of a 15-year-old girl from Mbembesi area, Matabeleland North Province, who was turned into a sex slave by her 49-year-old stepfather who allegedly repeatedly raped her resulting in her falling pregnant, is very disturbing.
The alleged sexual abuse took place from 2018 to November last year. It got worse during the lockdown when schools were closed as part of measures to control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At one point, the man, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the victim, tried to rape the girl when she was heavily pregnant and also soon after giving birth.
When he attempted to rape her soon after giving birth, the girl, who still had stitches, pleaded with him to spare her as she was still in pain.
What is disappointing and disturbing is that when the complainant narrated her ordeal to her mother, she did not buy the story until she caught him red-handed attempting to rape her.
The girl is one of the many victims of men who have turned their homes into dens of sexual abuse, taking advantage of the lockdown that has seen girls confined to their homes for long hours. The victims are trapped with abusive family members and in many cases find it difficult to report or escape the abuse.
The lockdown regulations, which restricted family members — including girls — to their homes to curb the spread of the pandemic, exposed the girls to intra-familial child sexual abuse.
Intra-familial child sexual abuse as defined by Centre of expertise on Child Sexual Abuse (CSA Centre) refers to child sexual abuse that occurs within a family environment.
According to child development experts sexual abuse perpetrated within the family environment often remains hidden and can be the most secretive and difficult type of abuse to detect.
Children may fear their abuser, not want their abuser to get into trouble, feel that the abuse was ‘‘their fault’’ and feel responsible for what will happen to their family if they tell.
The lockdown, like other quarantines imposed across the globe, has raised issues of child sexual abuse at a time when the country is already ravaged by high rates of sexual violence and teenage pregnancies caused by rape.
Giving an overview of child abuse cases handled by Contact Family Counselling Centre in Bulawayo during lockdown, Ms Ellita Mlilo, a counsellor with the institution said from September last year to March this year, 27 girls between the ages of 12 and 15 got pregnant after being sexually abused by either their biological fathers or stepfathers.
This was during a child rights coalition stakeholder meeting which was held recently in Bulawayo and organised by Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children (ZNCWC) Matabeleland region chapter where human child rights groups roundly urged the Government to step up measures to protect children especially girls from sexual violence.
Ms Mlilo said strict lockdown measures which were imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic trapped children in their homes thereby isolating them from the people and the resources that could help them.
“This resulted in many children being exposed to all types of abuses while the family, community and institutional environment were not all that supportive to children,” said Ms Mlilo. “From the counselled ones, she said it was observed that intra-family abuse was on the rise, with 61 clients between the ages of 12 and 15 being sexually abused during the lockdown period. Out of the 61 clients 27 got pregnant after being sexually abused by their biological fathers or stepfathers.”
Ms Mlilo said Covid-19-induced lockdown made it difficult for her organisation to carry out its activities such as client management, workshops, focus group discussions, dialogues, meetings and training.
According to Childline Zimbabwe, a non-governmental organisation that provides a free telephone helpline to report cases of child abuse, in January and February this year, they received 97 cases of sexual abuse cases of girls. Relatives or family members form the largest percentage of perpetrators of sexual abuse at 59 percent according to their January and February 2021 statistics.
The fact that the majority of perpetrators of child abuse are people known to the child makes homes high risk places and what aggravates the situation is that most of the victims cannot report the abuse to authorities like the police or other relatives.
This then impacts their mental health since they cannot receive the emotional and mental support they should get.
As stated by CSA Centre, abuse by a family member may be particularly traumatic because it shows high levels of betrayal.
Ms Thobekile Sithole, a legal officer with Justice for Children concurred with Ms Mlilo saying while lockdown measures were vital to halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, the regulations put children especially girls at high risk of sexual exploitation.
“Lockdown measures heightened the risk of violence in the homes and most of the victims of sexual abuse were girls,” said Ms Sithole.
She said there has been a sharp increase in teenage pregnancy and child marriages of girls aged between 12 and 15 years.
“Lockdown also saw an increase in juvenile delinquency cases such as drug and alcohol abuse due to idleness,” said Ms Sithole.
She said Covid-19-induced lockdown also disrupted access to legal aid and Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) services, adding that it also increased exposure to online exploitation by abusers.
“Children were spending more time online due to school shutdowns making them more vulnerable to online predators,” said Ms Sithole.
Ms Sunga Mzeche, director of Hope for a Child in Christ (HOCIC), an organisation which works to protect children and empower vulnerable communities, said the closure of schools and childcare facilities made children especially girls more vulnerable to abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
“Actions taken to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has left some children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, abuse and child marriage. Schools have been giving less room to abusers but since they were closed, children were now spending more time at home with the abusers,” said Ms Mzeche.
ZNCWC Matabeleland Regional Chapter chairperson and director of Hope Alive Child Network Ms Patience Dube said civil society organisations should be considered among those providing essential services during lockdown so that they continue assisting vulnerable members of the community.
“Since most of the work done at community level around health, social services are done by civil society organisations it is only logical to allow them to operate during lockdown as their services are essential,” said Ms Dube.
She said while the work done by the police during lockdown is applauded, victims of gender-based violence for example were not able to report or seek shelter due to restricted movement.
Ms Dube said going forward civil society organisations should be regarded as organisations providing essential services.
She added: “I think civil society organisations should be really regarded as organisations providing essential services because our work complements other essential services. We are however, not blaming the Government because Covid-19 is a new pandemic hence the systems are being perfected as we go.”
Commenting on re-entry to school after pregnancy, director of Education Coalition of Zimbabwe (Ecozi) Handsome Ncube said, learner-mothers may face many human rights violations in the pursuit of continuing their education.
“Even though there is an international legal obligation for governments to provide all children with an education without discrimination, girls admitted after falling pregnant are likely to encounter stigma and that’s why some girls attempt to abort,” said Mr Ncube.
This new policy by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education which states that girls who get pregnant will now get three months’ leave, after which they will resume their studies, will help tackle gender inequality in the classroom and stop many girls especially victims of abuse, from dropping out of school.
According to the Research and Advocacy Unit, 31 percent of girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18 and four percent are married before their 15th birthday despite the fact that Zimbabwe has criminalised all marriages below the age of 18.
Government should, therefore, take concrete steps to ensure protection of children is integral to all Covid-19 prevention and control measures.