Researchers from the Cameroon branch of the international NGO The School as an Instrument of Peace, or EIP in French, say the figure shows the scale of the problem nationwide.
It reinforces the findings of a study conducted by the local media, between January and March. That survey showed many children are the victims of rape, incest, prostitution, sexual trafficking and forced marriage.
Some say the findings show that no child is safe in Cameroon.
Catherine Moto Zeh is secretary general of EIP and coordinator of the study. She says the sexual abuse of children in Cameroon is far more rampant than previously thought.
“People who abuse children are found in all communities – among teachers, among parents, among religious people,” she says. “Most of the time, we think that only little girls are abused; even little boys now are being abused too; even women abuse young children. Children from two years old to 18 years old are being sexually abused.”
Experts agree the situation in Cameroon is one example of what’s going on across Africa. Parents, guardians and even victims themselves often don’t speak out, in an effort to avoid stigma and disgrace.
But the immediate and long-term consequences can be devastating to the health and social development of victims. The involvement of children in sexual activities they don’t fully understand and are not developmentally prepared for has harmful consequences. They include physical injury, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, poor performance in school and rejection by their peers and even adults. The psychological problems can last far into adulthood.
Melissa is a victim. She is only 30 but has been married and divorced three times. Her parents did not report her abuse as a child and are only now realizing how much it’s affected her life.
She says she was repeatedly raped at puberty by an uncle and grew up with relationship problems she has never been able to overcome. Melissa says memories of the abuse have permanently haunted her, leading to a distrust of men and causing the frequent divorces. She has resorted to drinking alcohol and thinks she may never marry again.
The WHO notes that about 13 percent of school-going children in sub-Saharan Africa are sexually abused. In Cameroon, watchdog organizations say the figure is more like 40 percent. Officials in the Ministry of Social Affairs say the numbers are exaggerated but have no statistics.
Health officials say government and communities are not giving child abuse enough attention.
The WHO says the contributing factors include poverty, the increasing breakdown of families, armed conflicts, and weak law enforcement . Another contributor is a widespread superstition that sexual intercourse with virgins, including babies, is a cure for HIV/AIDS.
EIP Cameroon, backed by the Canadian government and local child protection organizations, has begun a campaign to educate the public on the need to break the silence and report cases as they occur.
Cameroon has ratified several treaties protecting children, but they’re not strictly enforced. The Cameroon Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect says the few abusers who are eventually dragged to court for long procedures are either acquitted for lack of enough evidence or enjoy lenient sanctions. Sometimes perpetrators offer money to relatives of victims to avoid prosecution or threaten the victims so they’ll keep quiet.
Moto Zeh says everybody must denounce brutality against children.
“It is time for the community to do something because the problem is serious. Prevention is very important. We have to educate the community; then the society has to take laws.”
She says, “Cameroon has very good laws, but those laws have to be applied effectively so that people who abuse children are given the treatment they deserve.”
The campaigners are finishing a document to send to parliament. It recommends laws requiring parents and guardians to report cases. The document also calls for the creation of centers for clinical care and counseling for victims, as well as community-based monitoring. In addition, they are lobbying for bigger penalties for convicted abusers.
They say until such measures are put in place, and enforced, the problem will only get worse.