Sexual abuse of children is rampant in Zimbabwe, where the Aids pandemic has orphaned more than a million, the UN children's fund said Monday.

Most of the victims are primary school children, according to reports from clinics, aid groups and the media. One local group recorded 4 146 cases of sexual abuse against children in its area of operation last year alone, UNICEF said in a statement.

Some children are abused by school staff, others by family members, and most by trusted figures of authority, the statement said. Staff at one primary school in the capital, Harare, allegedly abused 14 girls, while at another school in nearby Marondera, 52 girls were allegedly abused.

"This is an utterly intolerable violation of children's rights," said UNICEF's country representative, Festo Kavishe. "Community leaders need to be explicit in their condemnation of such abuse."

A devastating Aids epidemic at a time of economic crisis in the southern African country has made many children vulnerable to abuse.

At least one in five Zimbabwean children has lost one or both parents, the overwhelming majority because of AIDS, UNICEF spokesman James Elder said by telephone from Harare. Many are cared for by already stretched extended families, grappling with acute food shortages, 80 percent unemployment and inflation of over 500 percent.

"With so many economic challenges, coupled with a very high number of orphaned children ... there is an incredible level of vulnerability here," Elder said. A child without money is more likely to hitch a ride from a stranger, for example, he added.

The impact of abuse can last a lifetime. Children who are raped are at high risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

UNICEF noted mounting public concern about the problem and efforts to make the court system more child-friendly. The UN agency is also working with government and other groups to promote "zero tolerance" of child abuse. But it said communities need to do more to break the silence about abuses.

"Community leaders, teachers, mums and dads - these people are the front line in the fight against child abuse," said UNICEF's head of child protection, Jose Bergua. "If children are going to have the confidence to speak out against these evils, then authority figures need to make it patently clear that child abuse in their communities will not be stomached. Silence on this issue shelters the perpetrators and is a crime against children." - Sapa-AP