The U.N. Children's Fund says the growing number of orphans from the HIV/AIDS pandemic and a declining economy are contributing to an increase in cases of children, particularly girls, suffering sexual abuse in Zimbabwe.

Reports of children being abused in government schools in Zimbabwe are regularly published in local newspapers.

Recently 52 girls at a primary boarding school in Marondera, 90 kilometers southeast of Harare were allegedly sexually abused by staff members.  There was a similar allegation in Harare, where 14 girls said they were abused by those in authority.

The Girl Child Network, a non-governmental organization has reported more than 4,000 cases of sexual abuse during 2005 in Harare.

This week, UNICEF issued an alert saying it was disturbed by the rising tide of reported sexual abuse of children.  The U.N. organization pointed out that children who were raped were particularly vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS.

The UNICEF spokesman in Harare, James Elder, said more than one million children orphaned in the HIV/AIDS pandemic had strained community resources to the maximum.

Elder praised those communities that had taken on the responsibility for caring for the majority of orphans, but he said families who had taken on extra children are financially strained, as never before.  The UNICEF official said this meant orphaned children are increasingly vulnerable.

Elder said UNICEF and its partners would increase education programs to give children confidence to speak out about abuse.

He said Zimbabwe had adequate legislation to cope with child abuse, but he said community leaders would be trained to help respond appropriately.

Many communities are already strained because they are caring for orphans who were displaced last May and June when the government demolished hundreds of thousands of homes in urban areas.  Zimbabwe's government said the demolitions were part of a clean up campaign.