The Truth about Rape and Child Sexual Abuse

By Runyararo Mutariswa

“A rapist does not have to be a stranger, someone you never saw or a man with obvious problems to be legitimate. If you have been in public with him, danced one dance, kissed him goodbye lightly with a closed mouth, pressing charges will be as hard as keeping your legs closed while five fools try and run a train on you. These men, friends of ours, who smile nicely, take you out to dinner, then lock the door behind you.”

These lines from the movie ‘For Coloured Girls’ shed some light on the problematic nature of intimate sexual violence.

Women across the region continue to suffer violence at the hands of their intimate partners and others they know, because of societal taboos that keep women silent about being abused, or worse, turn them into the guilty party.In Shona, the saying ‘Mukadzi mukuru haamire pachuru’ in English means ‘an adult woman does not publicise her marital problems’. Religious messages reinforce such notions through the belief that a man is the head of the household and a woman must submit to his authority.These attitudes make it more difficult for women and young children to report an offender who is known to them. The cultural norms that support and exonerate men who abuse their partners must be denounced.

Research on child sexual abuse shows that a large proportion of child abusers are acquainted with the child; they are family friends, workers, carers, or neighbours; 30% are relatives, while only 10% are strangers. We need to build the capacity of families to be aware of and respond to these risks in a way that protects our children.

In my community work, I have come across at least one case in each area where I have worked, of a child who has been abused by someone she knows. In as many as sixty of these cases, the perpetrator was not handed over to the law but instead, families reached an agreement on how to handle the ‘situation’. This leaves the child unprotected, living in the same community as the perpetrator and at risk of further abuse by the same offender.

This kind of arrangement is common practice in the Middle East and noth and east Africa, where women are sometimes forced to marry their abusers, to avoid ‘shaming their familes’. How is it alright to condemn a child to live with their RAPIST, to ‘legitimise’ this most brutal of attacks? Why is it the victim who is shamed and not the rapist? The idea that any form of payment or normalisation of the situation can remove the ugliness of sexual abuse needs to be addressed in the strongest possible way at the highest political and legal  levels.

The same goes for the women who have been affected in some way by gender-based violence. In the worst cases, some have even lost their lives. Women must be empowered so that they are able to recognise what an abusive relationship looks like, when to draw a line over possessiveness and emotional manipulation, and how to exit a dangerous relationship. Above all, women need to be supported by friends, family and communities when they decide to leave an abusive relationship. This will save lives.