Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding the Unthinkable

Child Sexual Assault in East Africa

As with Europe, I was not able to visit every country in East Africa. After two weeks in Ethiopia and Rwanda, though, I have a surface-level understanding the problem of child sexual assault (CSA) in these countries. Unfortunately, it is not a pretty picture. Child sexual assault is an enormous and growing problem in both Rwanda and Ethiopia. What's more, the governments and NGO's of these countries are not prepared to properly address the problem.

In this post, I will give a brief overview of the scope problem I just described, but I want to focus on answering the question that I asked every organization and individual I interviewed:


To most of us, hurting a child in any way is simply unthinkable. However, most of us have grown up in very privileged situations, far removed from the lives people lead in countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda. Please understand that I'm walking a fine line here. I do not in any way want to excuse the actions of those who sexually abuse children. These perpatrators must be held accountable for their crimes to the furthest extent of the law.

The other side of said line, though, is settling for a simple explanation like, "Because it's Africa," or "Because it's an underdeveloped country," in answer to my question of "Why is this such a huge problem?" I've gone into this a bit in a previous post here. If you haven't taken the time to read it, please do before going further.

It is the dangers on both sides of my fine line that led me to ask this question of every person I met. I wanted to get a broad understanding of the root causes of rampant child sexual assault so as not to hold onto dangerous misunderstandings. Another reason I asked this question is because I think every survivor asks it as well. If I'm going to help victims recover from this type of abuse, I need to be able to walk them through understanding the unthinkable as best I can.

Scope of the Problem

As I've already mentioned in my country overview posts for Ethiopia and Rwanda, child sexual assault is a huge problem in these countries. No one was able to give me any hard statistics, but here are some of the shocking facts I discovered while in these countries:


  • Ethiopia has only one hospital sexual abuse clinic in the entire country. This unit, within the Gandhi Memorial Hospital, sees over 10 victims (mostly children) every day.
  • This group of victims doesn't even scratch the surface of the total number of victims in the entire country of Ethiopia, since shame and lack of access keep other victims from reporting the crime and receiving treatment.
  • There are many organizations in Ethiopia attempting to address the problem through different strategies, but all are underfunded - reliant on private donors and minimal assistance from the swamped governmental department of Women, Youth, and Children Affairs.


  • The HIV/AIDS epidemic and the 1994 genocide have left many children as orphans, vunlerable to abuse.
  • Like in Ethiopia, this is a huge problem that is largely underreported. Even still, organizations like "Rwanda for Justice" handle upwards of 5,000 of CSA cases every year (source). Nearly half of these victims are between the ages of 4 and 8.
  • Fortunately, though, organizations like IJM are seeing progress in the fight against child sexual assault through the criminal justice system, with more and more perpetrators receiving convictions for their crimes every year.

Roots of the Problem

Please note that I do not use the word "causes" here. This is for two reasons. First of all, none of these factors have been proven to cause CSA - they are merely correlated, often coinciding with the problem. This means that one of these factors will not always result in CSA, and a lack of these factors does not mean that CSA will not occur in a society. More importantly, child sexual assault is caused by people, not abstract concepts. The perpatrator always causes the assault. I want to explore what often leads to this - the roots of the problem - but the perpatrator must always be held accountable for the assault that he or she committed.

1. Drugs and Alcohol


Unfortunately, far too many people in Ethiopia and Rwanda are addicted to various drugs and alcohol. Above on the left is a plant called "chat" in Ethiopia - most commonly known at "khat" elsewhere. This drug is illegal in many countries, but not in Ethiopia. This drug has many side effects, but the most relevant one for this discussion is a reduced inhibition, similar to alcohol's effects (source). After lunch time in a city like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, you see dozens of men walking the streets in Addis, chewing on chat or having a beer. Those working with victims of sexual assault say that often the perpatrator is addicted to either a drug like this or alcohol.

2. Poverty

Poverty often means that children do not have the type of supervision that could protect them from sexual abuse. Though poverty is a contributing factor in and of itself, it also seems to worsen all of the other factors mentioned here. In particular, unemployment and poverty often lead to mental health issues, which people try to self-medicate through drugs and alcohol. Poverty is also often associated with a lack of education, which can allow for the perpetuation of traditional practices that are harmful to children.

3. Traditional Practices

There are two key practices that contribute significantly to the proliferation of child sexual assault: child marriage and "virgin cleansings." Because of the tradition of child marriage, 42% of girls in Africa are married before age 18 (source). This means that many underage girls are forced into a situation of sexual abuse, but the abuse is considered to be the right of a husband by the traditional culture. The "virgin cleansing" myth is the belief that sleeping with a young girl who is still a virgin can cure HIV. This, too, has led to rampant child sexual abuse. Both of these traditional practices are intertwined in the larger system of patriarchy found in most of East Africa. Men are considered the gatekeepers, and this means that anything they want, they should be able to get. Though many educated Africans are fighting this gender norm, the belief is still firmly rooted in many of the traditional cultures.

4. Historical Trauma

This factor is one that I had not anticipated. It was particularly relevant in Rwanda. Please know, there have been no studies conducted to establish the link between historical events and current levels of CSA in Rwanda, but many people I spoke to feel strongly that it plays a significant role. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, at least 350,000 women were raped and brutally assaulted (source). This is a conservative estimate, and these sexual assaults were used as a sadistic tactic of war. The individuals, including children, who witnessed these violent assaults are innumerable. This type of trauma, where multiple generations entirely experience or witness violence, have severe consequences. Numerous studies (mostly examining Native American populations, but the consistencies are undeniable) have shown that this can lead to alcoholism, addictions, and further violence (source).

If you're like me, you're still dissatisfied with these four factors as an explanation. The act of child sexual assault is still unthinkable. That's good. I never want to grow comfortable with the idea of hurting a child in this way. I don't want my future clients to think that what happened to them makes sense.

It doesn't.

However, understanding the cultural and historical factors at play can help us to fight this problem at the root. For survivors, perhaps it can be a first step to healing, to process the wrong that has been done to them and say:

"This cycle of trauma stops with me."







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