Maverick Citizen

SEXUAL VIOLENCE OP-ED

Inaction of education authorities and police continues to fail sexually abused children

Police crime statistics reveal how widespread sexual abuse against children is in South Africa. In 2018/19, 24,387 sexual offences against children were reported. (Photo: Gallo Images/Foto24/Lucky Maibi)

The alleged sexual assault of two North West sisters has sparked a bid to hold education and law enforcement authorities accountable for their failure to protect children and/or take appropriate action against perpetrators.

SECTION27 has initiated a case on behalf of the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children and the parents of two female minors, who were allegedly raped and sexually assaulted, respectively, by a caretaker at a North West school. Despite the heinousness of the crimes and the mother’s attempts to report the incidents to law enforcement and school authorities, the accused remains employed. The siblings are forced to see the alleged rapist roam free in their community and he continues to harass them, while other pupils are under threat and their inherent right to safety and security is compromised in the presence of a “predator”.

The purpose of the case is to ensure that those who have the responsibility to protect the children in their care, such as the schooling authorities and law enforcement agencies, are held accountable for their failure to protect those children and/or take appropriate action against perpetrators in the schooling context.

In the first incident, in 2015, one of the girls was allegedly raped by the caretaker. She was 12 at the time. When the mother found out she tried to report the incident to the principal and the school governing body, but neither showed any concern or did anything.

The mother tried to report the case at her local police station but was told by the officer dealing with sexual violence cases that, because it had been two weeks since the incident and her daughter had since washed, including the panties she was wearing at the time, there was no evidence for a case to be opened. The mother was left with little hope in seeking justice for her daughter. 

A year later, in 2016, the mother learnt that the caretaker had allegedly sexually assaulted her youngest daughter, who was nine. Had education officials and law enforcement authorities acted promptly after the initial allegations against the caretaker, the second incident could have been prevented. 

The mother has since approached SECTION27 for help. There have been numerous attempts to alert the relevant education and police authorities to the two incidents, to no avail. 

SECTION27 has instituted a court application to challenge what seems to have become the status quo for dealing with sexual abuse cases, or not, in South Africa. 

The Optimus Study on sexual victimisation of children in South Africa found that the sexual abuse rate exceeds global averages. It suggests that one in three adolescents will have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 17. 

SAPS crime statistics further reveal how widespread the abuse is. In 2018/19, 24,387 sexual offences against children were reported. According to the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders, however, only one in 20 rape cases is reported to the police, which means the statistics are probably way off.

There are several reasons that sexual offences are underreported. In an article in the South African Medical Journal, Dr Kantharuben Nadioo says victims feel hopeless and disillusioned with the processes of justice, or they wish to avoid secondary trauma resulting from the legal process involved with the police and the court.

Through SECTION27’s work with schools across the country, it is also clear that a lack of knowledge and understanding of the processes to report child sexual abuse also contributes to underreporting. Which is why SECTION27 runs workshops using a child-friendly guide developed with the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and Lawyers Against Abuse to inform pupils, parents and teachers on how to identify, report and manage sexual violence in schools.

In the workshops we reiterate that sexual abuse can be reported to the police regardless of how much time has elapsed since the incident. The National Instruction on Sexual Offences (2008), which deals with how the SAPS must render professional services for victims of sexual violence, explains that a victim can lay a charge at any time, and that no matter how much time has elapsed since the incident, the SAPS must investigate every single complaint in the prescribed manner. 

The Sexual Offences and Related Matters Act (2007) (Sexual Offences Act) talks about “giving proper recognition to the needs of victims of sexual offences through timeous, effective and non-discriminatory investigation and prosecution”.

Section 54 of the act deals with the obligations of school governing bodies, which are relevant in the case SECTION27 is pursuing. Since the governing body is the employer of the accused caretaker, it has an express duty to take disciplinary action against him. Section 54 further describes the duties of the school and the educators who are required to report incidents of rape to SAPS officials, the Department of Social Services and designated child protection services. The duty to report is further highlighted in the Children’s Act (2005), according to Section 305 (1)(c) of which anyone who fails to report the abuse of a child is guilty of an offence. 

In cases of sexual abuse of pupils, the responsibilities of education officials are also provided for by the Protocol for the Management and Reporting of Sexual Abuse and Harassment in Schools, which ultimately recognises that “sexual abuse or harassment may occur on or off the school premises, during the school term or during the school holiday. The response to these incidents should be the same as it would if the incident occurred at school or during school hours.” The protocol also highlights that “the learner may also disclose allegations of sexual abuse or harassment that have occurred in the past. Time elapsed between the incident occurring and disclosure is irrelevant.”  

In the context of South Africa’s gender-based violence epidemic, it is deeply concerning to note the inaction of education and policing authorities in this case. The implication of the inefficiencies of our justice system is that perpetrators of sexual violence are granted the space in society to carry on without any serious consequences. 

The underreporting and arduous process of prosecution and other barriers to justice serve to reify systematic abuse in our education system. In her expert affidavit which forms part of SECTION27’s court application, director of clinical services at the Teddy Bear Clinic, Dr Shaheda Omar, explains: “There is an urgent need to deal with cases of sexual violence speedily, effectively and in a manner that centres on the needs of victims – particularly when victims are children.” DM/MC

Boitumelo Masipa is a communications officer at SECTION27 and Tasneem Kathrada is an intern at SECTION27.

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