JOHANNESBURG (IRIN/Plus News) — Girls who have been orphaned may be twice as likely to experience sexual abuse, according to research from child-friendly clinics in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.
Dr. Eunice Lyn Garura, Director of the Family Support Trust, an NGO operating clinics for survivors of sexual abuse, said 30 percent of the predominantly female clients were orphans who had lost both parents. The Trust runs four clinics, including one in Harare Central Hospital, which caters to some of the city's high-density areas.
Research showed that vulnerability had been exacerbated by government “clean-up” efforts, such as Operation Murambatsvina, which forcibly removed many orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) and their families from their homes and left them living on the street. Greater numbers of children coming to the clinic reported abuse, and higher percentages reported they had been raped or abused by strangers.
Delays in Disclosing mean Delays in Treatment
Almost 90 percent of orphans arrived at Harare Central Hospital clinic too late for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which must be administered within 72 hours of HIV exposure to prevent infection, said Garura, who presented her findings at the Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, this week.
The delay was often due to the children's difficulty in disclosing abuse, usually to older female relatives such as mothers, aunts or grandmothers. “Young children can't verbalize when abuse has taken place, and it takes time for them to disclose,” she said. “Often, we adults don't want to believe this could happen to my child ... there's ... denial.”
Teenage girls, the highest percentage of clinic users, were also hesitant to disclose abuse - often by their boyfriends - for fear of admitting to relatives that they were sexually active.
About six percent of the children participating in the research were found to be HIV-positive after suffering abuse, but researchers could not say whether their status was as a direct consequence.
Garura warned that HIV prevalence among the survivors was likely to be higher, as many children were tested in the “window period”, before HIV tests were likely to detect infection.
She called for more research on the possible links between orphanhood and vulnerability and sexual abuse among Zimbabwe's children, who were experiencing economic conditions unprecedented in the country's history.