Children displaced by armed conflicts in Africa’s Great Lakes Region–the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda–are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, according to a recent study.

According to a World Vision study titled Their Future in Our Hands, more than half of randomly selected displaced children between 10 and 18 experienced some sort of sexual abuse in camps for persons displaced by war.

Alex Wanyama, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Uganda, which is running a program to return internally displaced persons to their homes, told The Baptist Times he was certain that child abuse took place in the camps. “I have heard stories and testimonies from people and children who have gone through these experiences,” he said.

“The problem has always been congestion, where several families are living close together,” he said. “The other problem is where the child has lost both parents and is living on their own. Anybody could take advantage of them.”

“It’s driven by greed and sex,” added Andrew North of BMS World Mission, which is helping the Baptist Union of Uganda in its advocacy work for children. “These kids have had their childhood stolen–they’re no longer children except in body. Their innocence has been stolen, and that can never be replaced. The sheer numbers are horrifying.”

War and conflicts have created large numbers of vulnerable children living in insecure environments without protection, according to the study. Many children living in refugee or internally displace person’s camps are orphaned, abandoned or separated from their parents, and thereby lack the protection parents would otherwise provide.

“Sexual abuse and exploitation are largely prevalent in settings where there is a general
lack of respect for human rights,” the study reported. “Refugees and internally displaced people, who rarely enjoy the protection of their governments, are among those most vulnerable to such abuses.”

While both boys and girls were victims of child sexual abuse, more girls than boys reported forced touching or sex or said they were compelled to have sex in exchange for basic needs.

The breakdown of social structures and safety nets enjoyed before displacement make children more vulnerable, the study found. Perpetrators take advantage of such children’s vulnerability to sexually abuse and exploit them.

Children have limited ability to defend themselves or reason with adults who want to sexually manipulate them, the study said. Perpetrators, meanwhile, sexually abuse and exploit children with impunity–a situation that encourages the same perpetrator or others to abuse them repeatedly without fear of being prosecuted.

Congested shelter, overcrowding and small rooms and houses shared by many family
members expose children to sexual behavior. Some grownups have sex while children are looking, tempting them to do the same.

Male teachers demanding for sex from girls, was reported to be prevalent in camps. So were forced marriages, some involving girls as young as 13. Early or forced marriage is perpetuated by culture. Coupled with that is the practice of payment of a price for a bride. Because of poverty associated with displacement, parents encourage or force their daughters to marry for income.

Limited availability of food, firewood and water in camps makes it necessary for women and girls to walk long distances out of the camps deep into isolated and insecure places, another factor cited in making girls vulnerable to sexual abuse. Even when girls move in groups or with women, they are still not completely secure against attacks.

Alcohol and drug abuse also played a role in child sexual abuse. Communities in camps linked drug and alcohol abuse to loss of self-control, increased courage and boldness
and increased likelihood for one to be violent.

Other factors linked to child sexual abuse in camps included lack of education or awareness about sexual abuse, ignorance of child rights, provocative dressing and use of pornographic videos, which many teenagers watch to pass the time.

Also mentioned frequently were myths around HIV/AIDS and young girls. In one community, for example, girls talked of a common belief that having sex with a young girl, especially a virgin, cures HIV/AIDS. In another it was reported that girls sometimes fell victim to sexual abuse because a witch doctor told men that having sex with a young girl would make them rich.

Bob Allen is managing editor of Ruth Dickinson of The Baptist Times contributed to this story.

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