Sexual violenceSexual violence

Sexual assault against a child

Date: October 2018


Sexual assault is defined as unlawfully and intentionally (a) sexually violating a person, without his or her consent; or (b) making someone believe that he or she will be sexually violated. This indicator refers to the number of counts of sexual assault where the victim was a child in a given financial year.


Data Source South African Police Service crime data, 2013/14 – 2016/17 (child victims only, accessed November 2017). Maps are based on 2016/17 crime data. Analysis by Aislinn Delany & Winnie Sambu, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town.
Notes 1. Children are defined as persons aged 0 - 17 years. 2. Where no counts of a category of crime were reported, the map appears blank. 'District' boundaries displayed here are an approximation of the municipal district boundaries and are made up of the SAPS precincts that fall within each district, with the precinct boundaries 'dissolved'.
Sexual assault differs from rape in that rape involves unwanted penetration, while sexual assault involves other forms of unwanted sexual contact. The overall rate of sexual assault against children based on the 2016/17 crime data was 17 counts of sexual assault per 100, 000 children (under 18 years). This figure is likely to be an undercount and to reflect the low levels of reporting incidents of sexual assault to the police.

As in other countries, there are a large number of crimes that go unreported, either because of the sensitive nature of the crime or because a lack of trust in the police and the child protection system more broadly. Sexual assault in particular is substantially under-reported, particularly where there is no visible injury.

The table below provides the rate of sexual assault across province, sex and age group in 2016/17.

The reported sexual assault rates in 2016/17 were highest in the Western Cape (47 sexual assaults per 100,000 children), followed by Free State (26 sexual assaults per 100,000 children) and Northern Cape (24 sexual assaults per 100,000 children). Rates were lowest in Limpopo (7 sexual assaults per 100,000 children) and Mpumalanga (8 sexual assaults per 100,000 children). It is not clear how the sexual assault rates are affected by under-reporting.

Girls were more likely to be the victims of sexual assault than boys based on the reported data; and as with the rape rates, there are appears to be an increase in the likelihood of experiencing sexual assault as children grow older.
This sexual assault indicator is made up of counts of sexual assault, compelled sexual assault, compelled self-sexual assault and a small number of cases still classified as indecent assault, although this category is no longer used under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007.

A crime rate describes the number of crimes reported to law enforcement agencies per 100,000 total population. It is calculated by dividing the number of counts by the total child population (under 18 years) and multiplying the result by 100,000. We used the child population figures based on the 2016 General Household Survey (Statistics South Africa) to calculate the 2016/17 crime rates (see

This crime data was extracted by SAPS for the Children's Institute in November 2017. SAPS was requested to provide data for all counts of crimes against children (iunder 18 years) in the categories of murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, common assault, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and neglect and ill-treatment. The last category was not provided. Data on exploitation and trafficking were not requested. These figures represent the number of charges or counts of crime, and not the number of registered case dockets or victims.

The definitions of crimes are based on the definitions given in the manual: South African Police Service (2012) Crime definitions to be utilised by police officials for the purposes of the opening of case dockets and the registration thereof on the crime administration system. Issued by Consolidation Notice 2/2012. V.001.

The data is presented here by financial year rather than calendar year, as is the case with the official crime statistics. The financial year runs from 1 April to 31 March of the following year.
Crime statistics only scratch the surface when it comes to understanding the scale of violence against children because they reflect only those incidents that fit the narrow definition of a crime, and then only those that are reported to the police. Ideally they should be complemented by other sources of routine data. But in the absence of other reliable administrative data in South Africa - including from the Child Protection Register - crime statistics are one of the few sources of surveillance data available for monitoring violence against children nationally.

A challenge with using crime data for monitoring trends over time is that it is not clear what is driving an increase – or decrease – in reported counts of crime. For example, an increase in reported counts of rape may indicate an increase in the occurrence of rape, but may also reflect efforts to encourage reporting by, for example, making police stations more accessible and ensuring the presence of specialised police officers.

Crime rates are useful for taking population sizes into account and allow for more accurate comparisons between areas and over time. But up-to-date population estimates, particularly for children, are not readily available for smaller areas such as districts or police stations. Considering crime statistics at these lower levels is important because national and provincial level statistics hide large disparities in the levels of crime across different areas.

The primary challenge for child-centred analysis of crime data is the (un)reliability of the age data. The age of a victim may be unknown or may be captured incorrectly at station level. In some cases the age and gender of the complainant rather than the victim is captured on the system. In addition, the recorded age of the victim is his or her age at the time the crime was reported, rather than when the crime took place. Therefore an assault reported by an 18 year old that occurred a year or two previously (when she was still a child) will not be reflected in this data. These data quality issues further highlight the fact that crime data should be regarded as a considerable under-estimate of the levels of violence facing children in South Africa.