A private human rights group says sexual abuse of girls is spreading the HIV epidemic in Zambia. Human Rights Watch says protecting young girls and women is key to curbing the epidemic.
A new Human Rights Watch report entitled Suffering in Silence says sexual abuse of Zambian girls has caused the HIV infection rate among them to soar to four to seven times higher than for boys.
The author of the report Janet Fleischman in Washington points out that orphaned girls, some as young as 11, are particularly vulnerable.
"Girls who are orphaned, or from AIDS-affected families, are often abused by the very families that have taken them in," she said. "But it is also true that other seemingly responsible guardians and adults from teachers to others are also responsible for abuses against these girls."
Human Rights Watch says orphaned Zambian girls often have no recourse but to drop out of school and trade sex for survival - not only their survival, but that of younger sisters and brothers. For those not engaging in prostitution, refusal to submit often brings violence or coercion upon them.
A United Nations report in December noted that the problem is common to Africa in general. But Human Rights Watch says it focused its report on Zambia because the country's HIV rate is one of the highest in Africa. One in five adults are infected.
Ms. Fleischman says the Zambian government does not adequately enforce its laws against sexual violence, and insensitive handling by the law enforcement system often deters victims from reporting cases. She says fear of stigmatization also plays a role.
"Families cover up abuses for reasons that are sometimes linked to the fear associated with exposing cases of rape and incest," she said. "To report the breadwinner of the family and risk his imprisonment is also something that would have serious ramifications for the family that is relying on that income."
Human Rights Watch says little of the assistance from donors such as the United States and international organizations has gone to protecting girls from sexual abuse. The group urges the Zambian government to intensify training on this problem for police and court officials and to prosecute violators rigorously.
It also calls on President Bush to push for greater U.S. protection of African girls when he finally visits the continent.