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Alarm at Zimbabwe's growing child sex abuse

Children reflected in a puddle in Zimbabwe (Archive photo 2008)
The Family Support Trust Clinic has helped thousands of abused children

By Brian Hungwe
Harare

Zimbabwean paediatrician Robert-Grey Choto spends most of his day counselling sexually abused children at a clinic in the capital, Harare.

On the day I visit the Family Support Trust Clinic he is with a 10-year-old girl who was abused by a neighbour last month.

She had been at home alone when she was molested, as her parents had left the country in search of work.

His next patient is 12-year-old Lewis (not his real name), who was gang-raped in a Harare township last month.

"Four men waylaid me on my way from school," he says.

"I was taken to a shop where they showed me pornographic material."

He says he was then drugged and sodomised for more than a week.

After examining the traumatised boy, Dr Choto confirms the abuse - to the horror of Lewis' father.

"This is unbearable, all I want is justice for now," he says.

An orphan preparing maize

A medical report is prepared by the clinic for the police to investigate. Tests show Lewis is HIV negative. He is lucky and relieved.

Dr Choto helped set up the clinic, part of the main referral hospital in Harare.

During the past 10 years, it has become a centre of hope and help for tens of thousands of people.

The clinic's statistics show an alarming rise in the abuse of children.

"In the last four years we have seen over 29,000 cases, and in the last 10 years we have more than 70,000 at this clinic alone," he says.

"It's a tip of the iceberg - the problem is enormous. We need drugs and any assistance we can get."

Dr Choto believes many hundreds of thousands of cases are going unreported because of the fear of stigmatisation, and because many parents are unaware of the free treatment and counselling clinics available.

Despite this, he faces an increasing number of these cases every day.

"It's horrifying. It rattles me so much so I don't know what to do.

A family unit is the starting point of socialisation, but when children are left vulnerable, they are exposed - hence these cases of rape and abuse
Gillian Gotora

"All kinds of thoughts cross my mind, I want to be violent against the perpetrator, but the profession tempers you - you are helping the victim, the abuse, the survivor."

As I leaf through a file detailing countless cases of child molestations, some as young as two years old, another of the clinic's counsellors, Chipo Mukome, says she believes the absence of parents has compounded the problem.

"Due to the economic situation where we have seen a lot of parents going to neighbouring countries, like South Africa, in search of greener pastures, they are leaving their children to the care of others - uncles and aunts for example," she says.

"These people, in the end, are abusing these children."

'Exposed'

Parents of victims are now searching for more community-based programmes to stop the menace - and more counselling services, like that run by Dr Choto, are starting to open countrywide.

"Raising awareness of this problem should start immediately," said Lewis' father.

Zimbabwe's economic meltdown and political crisis during the past decade has forced millions into the diaspora - and nine months into a unity government, many Zimbabweans still survive on the remittances sent home.

There are also many orphans whose parents have died of HIV/Aids, who are left in the care of the extended family.

Gillian Gotora, a sociologist at the University of Zimbabwe, says these issues are a cause for concern.

"A family unit is the starting point of socialisation, but when children are left vulnerable, they are exposed - hence these cases of rape and abuse."

And the harsh economic realities in Zimbabwe - unemployment is thought to be about 90% - has also put a strain on families and relationships.

Research psychologist Gwatirera Javangwe also tries to explain why the problem was occurring.

"People having difficulties in their relationships deal with their inadequacies by pouncing on vulnerable children, who treat every adult like a parent," she says.



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