Girls’ safety hinges on families’ willingness to speak out about sexual violence, researchers in Senegal’s southern Casamance region said at the release of a study that reveals widespread violence against girls aged 10 to 13.
The study, by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the University of Ziguinchor, found that in Kolda, Sédhiou and Ziguinchor, family, social and cultural pressures bred silence and impunity.
Having heard of many cases of early pregnancy and violence in and around schools in 2008 and 2009, UNICEF funded and conducted the study for a more detailed picture of the nature, extent and causes, Christina de Bruin, head of the agency in Ziguinchor, told IRIN.
“It is urgent that the taboo surrounding sexual violence be lifted in society and above all in the family,” the report states.
For Diatta Yadicone Sané, a state education worker in Sédhiou region, family honour is an important factor. “In this culture the family’s honour is first and foremost,” she told IRIN. “The first consideration is saving face among the adults; [people] do not think of the young girl who is the victim of something that carries inconceivable consequences.”
Researchers found that social pressures “disarm” families in the face of rape. “Even if parents want to react, more often than not they opt to settle the matter within the family or ask a traditional local leader to mediate," the report says.
Moreover, families do not want to talk about these arrangements between the family members and the perpetrator, Mohamed Azzedine Salah, UNICEF deputy regional director, told IRIN. “This makes it difficult to have open discussions in the community about the problem and its impact.
“Silence is one of the principal causes of this violence.”
Some local experts and residents said it was mostly because of a family’s fear of social stigma that rape cases were not pursued in court.
“A girl is destined for marriage,” Sané said. “So the family does not want her to be singled out and marginalised.”
In many cases, she added, the assailant is a family member, which makes it all the more unlikely legal recourse will be sought.
“When a girl is raped or beaten by a family member or someone close to the family, people try to find a compromise within the circle because this society looks down upon someone who would bring a close friend or relation to court,” a resident of Casamance’s department of Bignona, Moussa Sané, said.
It is not only in rape cases that culture has a negative impact on girls, child welfare experts and educators told IRIN, naming several other practices they said constitute violence – forced early marriage, early pregnancy and female genital mutilation/cutting.
“When certain rites are practised as part of religious or traditional beliefs it is not easy to eradicate them from one day to the next,” Oumar Diatta, education specialist in Kolda, told IRIN. He said a reluctance to speak out played a role here as well.
“The fact that these practices are deep-seated in the society and culture [means] there is a reticence to denounce them. This blocks understanding of the reality, of the potential harm. It’s a delicate situation.”
In their report UNICEF and the University of Ziguinchor say health, education and social services institutions must work together to combat all forms of violence against children.
As part of their recommendations they call for reinforcing education – for children and adults – about sexual violence and children’s rights, providing legal assistance to victims and strengthening social services for girls traumatised by violence.