Sexual violenceSexual violence

Adolescents experiencing sexual abuse

Date: October 2018


South Africa's first national prevalence survey on child sexual victimisation took place in 2016 with adolescents aged 15-17 years. To measure child sexual victimisation, adolescents were asked if they had ever experienced any of the situations shown below. Overall, 26.3% of adolescents in the self-completion component of the study reported experiencing at least one (or more) of these situations.


Data Source Artz L, Burton P, Ward C et al (2016) Optimus Study South Africa: Technical Report. Sexual Victimisation of Children in South Africa. Final Report of the Optimus Foundation Study: South Africa. Zurich: UBS Optimus Foundation (p84-85). Household weighted data, self-administered questionnaire.
Notes Participants were adolescents aged 15 - 17 years old.
One in four adolescencents reported experiencing at least one (or more) forms of sexual abuse in their lifetime, based on the responses to the self-completion component of the household survey. When looking at the school-based survey which was conducted as part of the same study, as many as one in three (35.4%) of respondents reported some form of sexual abuse at some point in their lives. These differing rates highlight the extent to which the way that young people are asked about sensitive issues can influence whether or not they chose to disclose their experiences. Despite this variance, the rates confirm that the levels of sexual violence against children in South Africa are high.

The impacts of sexual violence against children are well documented and include physical, emotional, psychological, cognitive and social effects that can last into adulthood. While other local and international studies tend to highlight the vulnerability of girls to sexual abuse1, this study did not find large differences between the overall rates of sexual abuse reported by females and males. Instead the researchers argue 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."1 The study found that boys experience more non-contact sexual abuse, such as exhibitionism or exposure to pornography, while girls experience more contact sexual abuse, such as sexual touching or sexual assault.

It is worth noting that the definition of sexual abuse used in the national prevalence study is very broad and includes doing "sexual things with anyone 18 or older, even things you both wanted".2 Given that the survey was conducted with 15 to 17 year olds, it is not clear that all such sexual acts arenecessarily 'abusive', particularly in cases where, for example, a 16 or 17 year old has consensual sex with an 18 year old.
The 2016 national prevalence survey on child sexual victimisation consisted of a population-based survey and an accompanying school-based survey. The household survey was based on a multi-stage stratified sample designed to produce a nationally representative sample and which used province, geographic area (urban/rural) and race group as stratification variables (see the technical study report for more detail). The schools were clustered according to the Enumerator Areas (EAs) identified in the household survey; as a result the data is not representative of the school population.

One adolescent aged 15 – 17 years was interviewed per selected household. Active informed consent was obtained from parents and informed assent was obtained from the adolescent. In the school-based survey, a total of 30 interviews were completed (10 learners each from grades 10 to 12) per school. Passive parental consent was sought at schools. The household sample consisted of 5 631 participants (refusal rate: 5.2%), while the school-based survey comprised 4 086 learners (refusal rate: 3.9%).

In reporting the findings, we have drawn on the nationally representative household survey data. Where possible, we report the findings from the self-administered component as we consider them to be more reliable given the anonymity involved. There does appear to have been a greater willingness to disclose in the self-administered component, with rates reported in this component generally being higher than those reported in the interviewer-administered component.
A strength of the prevalence survey is that it captures incidents not reported to the authorities and which would therefore not appear in administrative data. The Optimus survey also drew on different sites (home and school) and different methods of collecting the data (interviewer and self-administered questionnaires); the differences in the rates reported show how the approach taken can influence the results.

This survey fills an important data gap in understanding the prevalence of sexual violence against children but it is not conducted on a regular basis and therefore does not provide surveillance data needed to monitor trends over time. A potential limitation of this particular study was the ethical requirement of obtaining parental consent in the household survey. Obtaining informed consent and assent is essential for ethical research but it raises a concern that abusive parents may have refused consent, thus biasing the results.

A further limitation is that the data cannot be disaggregated beyond provincial level, and in most cases the small numbers reporting various forms of abuse makes disaggregation even to this level difficult. Obtaining data at a lower level (e.g. district) is important for understanding where violence against children is most prevalent and which groups of children are most at risk.