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How safe is your teen daughter?

By Stephen Muthui Ndegwa | Dec 20th 2021 | 5 min read

One in four adolescent girls reported having experienced violence last year. [Courtesy]

Kenya is one of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with alarmingly high rates of physical and sexual violence for teenage girls according to a recent study by researchers from the Centre for Global Development.

Analysing data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and those from the Violence Against Children and Youth Surveys that capture basic statistics on physical and sexual violence, the researchers found teenage girls are no less safe at school than they are out of school.

“On average, about 30 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 were found to have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point,” said Dr David Evans, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Global Development and his associates in the study published on December 6.

But Evans warned that this could be an under-estimation, as people tend to under-report violence. “In no country in our sample are girls significantly more likely to report having experienced sexual violence,” said Evans and his associates.

But with a national prevalence rate of 31.6  per cent of teenage girls that reported physical and sexual violence,  Kenya was ranked among countries where adolescent girls require the most protection, alongside their counterparts in Uganda (41.4%), Democratic Republic of Congo (38.2%), Mali (33.6%), Cote dÍvoire (32.6%), Ghana (32.3%) and Nigeria( 31.8%).

 To get the broader picture of the issue, the researchers compared rates of violence against girls who are enrolled versus their counterparts who are not in school, across the 20 countries that together represent 80 per cent of girls aged 15–19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The emerging evidence is that whereas the Covid-19 lockdowns might have exposed gender-based violence much more, in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the problem existed at a high level that many people had not been willing to accept.

According to Evans, whereas the new evidence is suggesting that sexual abuse is not unique to schools, there is a need to understand that violence against girls has been too pervasive in schools and in local communities for a long time.

 30 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 were found to have experienced either physical or sexual violence. [Courtesy]

Nonetheless, the study states the relationship between violence against girls and schooling is rather too complicated, as, on one hand, school attendance exposes girls to potential threats from teachers, school staff, and even peers, both at school and during the commute.

 Alternatively, not attending school, the study points out that it is not a way forward, as it means that girls may marry at an early age and be at risk of intimate partner violence. Still, teenage girls who may decide to enter the workforce may also face violence from bosses and co-workers.

 In this regard, the study, ‘Adolescent Girls’ Safety in and Out of School: Evidence on Physical and Sexual Violence from across Sub-Saharan Africa,’  is a warning that despite many policies in education, protection of girls in school and in communities is a mirage in Sub-Saharan Africa.

One of the key arguments of the study is that there is a crisis, taking into account that one in four adolescent girls reported having experienced violence, and one in seven reported having experienced sexual violence in the previous year.

“This data shows us that girls are vulnerable to violence both in school and in other contexts, suggesting there is an urgent need for reforms to allow girls to study and to live their lives safely,” stated the study.

 The issue is that whilst more had been done in keeping girls in school, most African countries do not gather data on violence against children. But even worse, few in the continent have systematic and comprehensive policies on how to combat violence against adolescent girls, or enforce policies if they have them, says United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In this context, although the majority of the 20 countries under review have policies and legislation in place to reduce violence against children on different fronts, most of those countries have only partial funding to back the implementation of those policies.

 Focusing on perpetrators of violence, the researchers found the most common offenders were boyfriends (19.3%), friends (14.3%), strangers (13.9%) and family members (8.4%). Teachers were less likely to be named and only 2.1% of girls singled out teachers as abusers.

 But whereas the proportion of teenage girls who experienced any sort of violence in school was lower in most countries, it was highest in Kenya at 28.3% and lowest in Zimbabwe at 2.6%.

 Still, Kenya was only second to Nigeria in having the highest proportion of girls aged 20–24 years old currently attending secondary schools who experienced physical or sexual violence at 27.8 per cent and 29.7 per cent respectively, while the Democratic Republic of Congo was third at 25 per cent. Countries with the lowest proportion in this cohort were Ethiopia (2%) and Zimbabwe (2.1%).

Child abuse in Sub-Saharan Africa is being linked to impacts of the Covid-19. [Courtesy]

What these datasets are suggesting is that schooling in Kenya is increasingly becoming unsafe for girls, probably as well as for boys, in comparison to many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers were quick to point out that increasing access or achieving higher completion rates are not enough indicators to assume that all is well in the education sector.

To date, distance to school remains a challenge in Kenya’s rural areas and informal settlements, as students often travel long distances to school or walk through unsafe neighbourhoods.

In their recommendations, the researchers said the topmost issue is for the education sector and parents to acknowledge that violence against girls in school merits special attention.

The study observed that as secondary education for girls expands in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a need to confer a wide range of benefits on girls. But even before that happens, researchers said countries should collect more data on violence against girls, in order to make credible decisions.

In this regard, the study recommended reporting violence to police should be a top priority. “Girls should be encouraged to report cases of physical and sexual violence and action should be taken against perpetrators,” stated the study.

Almost in all countries that were studied including Kenya, reports of sexual violence to police were dramatically very low and researchers noted the apathy for girls to report could be attributed to lack of effective recourse to justice systems.

What this means is that perpetrators of violence and sexual harassment against teenage girls are usually not being held accountable for their actions. According to the study, child abuse in Sub-Saharan Africa is being linked to impacts of the Covid-19, although it existed even before.

As for Kenya, the emerging question is whether policymakers are aware of the scope of the issue. But as the study has noted, continuing to blame the Covid-19 pandemic is not a solution. 

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