Optimus Study: One in three young South Africans sexually abused

  • 10 Jun 2016

Optimus Study: One in three young South Africans sexually abused – Blog

"Children feel we are turning a blind eye to their issues. We are only now understanding the depth of damage caused by child abuse", said Ms Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Social Development, at the launch of the Optimus Study.

"Children feel we are turning a blind eye to their issues. We are only now understanding the depth of damage caused by child abuse", said Ms Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Social Development, at the launch of the Optimus Study.

One in every three young South Africans has experienced some sort of sexual abuse by the age of 17 according to the recently published final report of the Optimus Study South Africa, the first nationally representative study on the extent and impact of child sexual abuse and maltreatment in South Africa.

The Optimus Study on child sexual abuse and maltreatment in South Africa

The study “Sexual victimisation of children in South Africa” was commissioned by the UBS Optimus Foundation and authored by researchers from the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town.

In order to obtain a comprehensive picture of the nature, extent and impact of child sexual abuse in the country, the study drew on two data sources:

  1. a population survey that was conducted with a sample of 15- to 17-year-old adolescents recruited nationally from schools (4 086 participants) as well as households (5 631 participants), and
  2. an agency component that consisted of a series of in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with frontline staff and agency directors servicing the communities or geographical spaces identified through the sampling process.

The study identifies where resources can best be targeted, provides a local evidence base for the development of effective interventions, and identifies whether intervening in one form of abuse or neglect might also have the potential to address other forms of violence.

Nearly 785 000 children – or eight times Joburg’s Soccer City Stadium

Of the young people interviewed in schools, 35.4% – one in every three young people – had experienced some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Figures from the household portion of the study are slightly lower, but confirm that the rates are high: in households, 26.3% – more than a quarter – reported having experienced some form of sexual abuse.

This means that a total of at least 784 967 young people in South Africa have been the victims of sexual abuse by the age of 17 years. A total of 351 214 cases of sexual abuse had occurred among 15- to 17-year-olds in the past year alone:

  • Almost the population of Port Elizabeth and almost double the population of Bloemfontein.
  • Equivalent of filling up the Johannesburg’s Soccer City Stadium eight times over and the Cape Town Stadium 14 times over
  • 12 abused children may be sitting in your child’s classroom and 20 will be sitting in an average school bus.

Similar rates between boys and girls – but different forms of abuse

The differences between males’ and females’ reported rates of abuse were not as stark as anticipated. In the school survey, boys (36.8%) were found to be slightly more likely than girls (33.9%) to report some form of sexual abuse.

“Children feel we are turning a blind eye to their issues. We are only now understanding the depth of damage caused by child abuse.” Bathabile Dlamini, Minister for Social Development
The mean age at which girls first experienced sexual abuse was 14, while boys typically reported their first experience to be at the age of 15 years.

The findings from this national prevalence study indicate that boys and girls are equally vulnerable to some form of sexual abuse over the course of their lifetimes, although those forms tend to be different for boys and for girls:

  • Girls were more likely to experience forced and penetrative sexual abuse, and other forms of sexual abuse that involve contact with the abuser (contact abuse)
  • Boys were more likely to report forced exposure to sexual acts and material (non-contact abuse)

Forms of abuse – 40% experienced abuse more than once

One in 10 (11.3%) young people had experienced unwanted sexual touching by a known or unknown adult in their lifetime, based on reporting rates from the school survey.

Based on reporting rates from the school survey, 9.4% of young people had been made to do sexual things against their will by another child or teen; 11.7% had experienced someone trying to force them to have sex; 12.9% had experienced exposure abuse; and 15.7% had had a sexual experience with someone 18 or older (some of which may have been consensual).

These findings illustrate that while sexual abuse is slightly more likely to occur once in a young person’s lifetime, in 40% of these cases, it occurs two or more times. One fifth of young people who have been sexually abused, experiences some form of sexual harassment four or more times.

In the school survey, 42.2% of respondents had experienced some form of maltreatment (whether sexual, physical, emotional or neglect), while 82.0% reported experiencing some form of victimisation (whether criminal victimisation or exposure to family or community violence). By and large, girls and urban dwellers were more likely to report these experiences than boys and those living in rural areas.

Anxiety, stress and injuries: Consequences of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse was dramatically and strongly associated with mental health symptoms: young people who reported having been sexually abused were more than twice as likely to report anxiety and depression, and three times as likely to report PTSD symptoms, as other young South Africans.

“We need to give our children the opportunity and spaces to have fun and be children. We need to strengthen parent-child relationships.” Dumisile Nala, Director of ChildLine South Africa
One-fifth of children who have been sexually abused by adults are also likely to have problems with schoolwork or school attendance. Nearly a third of those sexually abused by a known adult reported having injuries as a result of this abuse, although in turn, only a third of those injured actually sought assistance. Other consequences associated with sexual abuse include:

  • High risk sexual behaviour: 37.4% (compared with 9.9% of children who have not been abused)
  • Risky substance use: 43.2% (compared with 17.8% of children who have not been abused)

Respondents were unlikely to report incidents of sexual abuse to authorities. For instance, in cases where they reported sexual abuse by an adult they knew, only 31.0% of girls and no boys reported this to the police. Young males are especially disinclined to report, across all categories of abuse.


From a policy perspective, South Africa should move towards the formulation of a much-needed, and regulated, child protection protocol for the management of sexual offences for both state and non-governmental child protection service providers. A protocol which should:

  • be supported and reinforced by the existing legal framework and concomitant legislative regulations and departmental policies – as well as for research evidence;
  • focus on making it more feasible and safer for young people to make reports, and improve the speed at which medical attention is received when the first report is made, and the speed at which the justice system processes cases.

Given the strong associations between sexual abuse and all other forms of maltreatment and victimisation, those taking a report of sexual abuse or dealing with a young victim should be alert to the likelihood that the child has also experienced one or more other victimisations. These should also be explored in counselling, and appropriate support provided.

Good parent-teen relationships – where parents have warm, caring relationships with their children, where there is good communication between parent and child, and where parents monitor their children’s activities – play a role in preventing child sexual abuse. Programmes that promote better parent-teen relationships should be made widely available.

Since parental substance misuse is associated with sexual abuse of children, one key preventive strategy is to make substance abuse treatment programmes far more widely available and accessible than they are at present.

Schools have a particularly important role to play in addressing the levels of sexual violence that are evident both within the school environment, and within households.

In the longer term, the normative attitudes of violence that still exist in many classrooms, evidenced by the ongoing use of corporal punishment, and the acceptance by educators of various forms of violence, including bullying and sexual harassment, must be shifted in order to ensure that schools are safe places for children where learning can occur.

This can be achieved through the integration of school safety into teacher training, as well as the integration of evidence-based life skills curricula that directly target issues relating to sex, gender and violence, into schools.

Given the experiences of sexual violence of boys highlighted in the study, particular focus should be provided on building the capacity of educators to recognise and respond to all forms of sexual violence in the classroom and the school environment, with a particular focus on shifting current perceptions that all or most sexual violence is experienced only by girls, and rather recognising that boys also experience various forms of sexual violence.

This article draws extensively from the study’s extensive summary as well as inputs given at the study launch on 1 June 2016 in Pretoria.