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16 Days of Activism: Commercial sexual exploitation of children is rampant in South Africa

FIle photo: The Institute for Healing of Memories launched its social media campaign titled #thehandsofmen which is focused on Gender-Based Violence, Femicide, and Human Trafficking. Photographer: Ayanda Ndamane /AFrican News Agency(ANA)

FIle photo: The Institute for Healing of Memories launched its social media campaign titled #thehandsofmen which is focused on Gender-Based Violence, Femicide, and Human Trafficking. Photographer: Ayanda Ndamane /AFrican News Agency(ANA)

Published Nov 29, 2022


With one of the largest economies and being among the richest nations in Africa, South Africa has the potential to become an international economic powerhouse.

Despite this, the country has one of the worst levels of inequality and poverty in the world.

Young children are especially impacted; according to some figures, 60 percent of South African children live in poverty.

This along with rising instances of adult death linked to HIV/Aids, makes the children easy prey for sexual exploitation and human trafficking,

Research shows that child rape is on the rise, with South Africa having one of the highest rates in the world.

According to the SAPS 2019/2020 Annual Crime Statistics more than 24 000 children were sexually assaulted in South Africa during this period. Health-e news reported that one in five children are victims of sexual abuse, representing 19.8%, compared to a global average of 18% for girls and 8% for boys.

The mythical notion that having sex with a virgin may cure HIV/Aids, which is widespread among many African men, frequently serves as fuel for child rape (thus the term "virgin cleaning myth").

The production of child pornography and child prostitution are two examples of of commercial sexual exploitation of children that are frequently linked to child rape.

The scope of sexual exploitation of children has significantly expanded, and its characteristics have evolved over time. There are many instances of youngsters being saved from sex slave gangs and human traffickers.

The media covers some of the stories, but due to the illegal and covert nature of the actions, many more incidents are not covered.

The use of young children, especially girls, as sex slaves and for other commercial purposes by trafficking organisations is a recurring theme in these cases.

The fact that some of the victims are kids between the ages of 10 and 14 makes it even more alarming.

The instances of child sexual exploitation in South Africa represent a new facet and an expanding pattern in the abuse of children. The desensitisation of society to child trafficking and sexual exploitation is the most worrisome part.

South Africa has advanced children's rights significantly compared to many other sub-Saharan African nations.

Children's rights are firmly established in South Africa's Constitution, and the nation has ratified a number of international and regional child rights agreements, including the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children, the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

These agreements show the South African government's political commitment to the safety of children. ​​

A framework for the legal protection of children in South Africa is provided by domestic laws including The Children's Act 38 of 2005, the Sexual Offences Act 32 of 2007, the Trafficking In Person (TIP) Act, and the Child Justice Act.

However, South Africa's social and economic problems which include inequality, unemployment, a lack of education and poverty, opens it up to a high risk of child sex trafficking and exploitation to occur.

With an estimated 68% of South African children living in low-income households and 20% being orphans, many families are left in a precarious economic and social situation.

Families struggle to survive as a result, and children are more susceptible to being exploited for profit. In South Africa, the International Labor Organization estimates that 1.39 million people—40 to 50 percent of them are children—are coerced into commercial sexual work.

Children are seen as disposable objects in a culture that has little regard for their welfare as a result of sexual exploitation of children (SEC). SEC emerges in several ways as the victims are taken advantage of in various ways. In South Africa, child sexual exploitation is most frequently manifested in prostitution, pornography, child sex trafficking, internet sexual exploitation of minors, and sex for adult favours.

The perpetrators of SEC use psychological manipulation to seduce victims into sex slavery with promises of higher training, employment opportunities, family safety, and financial support. The offenders frequently lure victims by assuring their relatives that they will receive money from the child's earnings so that they can be better cared for.

"Survival sex" is a developing method of sexually abusing minors in South Africa. In this scenario, sex is traded for needs like food, shelter, education, or to pay off a family member's debt. In addition, the growing cross-border mobility of people and new technologies have made it possible for child sexual exploitation to develop and take on new forms.

Possession and distribution of photos of sexual content involving children have become simpler and less expensive thanks to the internet, both locally and internationally.

This makes both child trafficking and internet child sex exploitation profitable businesses with high profits and low risk.

The number of kids who are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking has increased as more kids cross borders into South Africa unaccompanied. Most unaccompanied children and children on the move come from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, then Malawi, Swaziland, and Lesotho.

Child prostitution takes many different forms. In some instances, young girls engage in "relationships" with older males in exchange for cash or other "rewards."

Parents frequently participate in these interactions and may even encourage them. This type of sexual exploitation targets children in vulnerable situations more than others. In Cape Town, it is thought that one-fourth of all boys and girls who live and work on the streets are sexually exploited through prostitution.

Practices like child marriage and treating kids like property, along with out-of-date laws that ignore the possibility that boys may also be victims, are deep rooted and difficult to address.

The sexual exploitation of girls has been made worse by attitudes that celebrate predatory sexual activity and objectify women's sexuality, while traditional perceptions of boys and men as sexual violence perpetrators have resulted in a flagrant disregard for victims.

In addition, attitudes in Africa toward particularly vulnerable populations including disabled children, people living and working on the streets, and people engaged in unregulated domestic work continue to be major obstacles to eliminating child sexual exploitation. Children who are homeless, for instance, virtually often turn to so-called "survival sex," such as unprotected intercourse.

The fact is that some of those who are tasked with protecting our children, including peacekeeping forces, humanitarian organisations, governments, teachers, police officers, and parents, themselves abuse their authority, control, and position of trust by subjecting both boys and girls to sexual exploitation.

It is not particularly shocking to read of instructors in rural regions demanding sex in exchange for higher grades, and is a sign of how pervasive such abuse of power has become. Schools often stop being safe havens and turn into hazardous places for both boys and girls who experience sexual assault from both teachers and fellow pupils.

There is no justification for inaction despite the fact that the issue of child sexual exploitation is complex and calls for numerous approaches.

Legislation that expressly safeguards children's welfare and security, as well as outlaws sexual abuse, child sex tourism, and online exploitation, must be swiftly adopted and implemented by African governments.

Strong social structures must be established in order to protect children's welfare and hold perpetrators accountable.

In order to protect children and rid our society of this hidden scourge that is so harmful to this generation of boys and girls as well as future ones, civil society organisations, teacher's associations, parents, and caregivers must all become actively involved.