Preventing Sexual Violence Against Children with Disabilities

Handicap International’s Ubuntu Care project combats sexual violence against children, particularly children with disabilities, in Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda. Below, Regional Coordinator Sofia Hedjam describes the program and its achievements. Launched in November 2012, it has already provided care and treatment to 600 child victims of sexual violence.

What is the aim of the Ubuntu Care project?

Our aim is to protect children from sexual abuse by teaching them, as well as there parents and teachers, about the risks and how to protect themselves. In the countries where we work, sexual violence against children, particularly children with disabilities, is widespread. Our moderators visit schools to warn and inform children about the risks of sexual violence.

We use interactive activities and games as teaching tools. For example, we ask the children to take turns to place red and green stickers on a poster of the human body. Red means don’t touch while green means OK to touch. We ask the kids to explain why another person does not have the right to touch this or that part of their body and then we discuss it together. We also ask the children to perform in short plays about sexual aggression in front of adults as part of a street theatre project. A debate is organized at the end of the play and the public is asked to join in. Last year, we made a film, “Through our Eyes in which children were asked to list the causes of sexual violence, and then had them act it out.

Why are children with disabilities particularly vulnerable?

There are two main reasons. First, children with disabilities are often left at home while their parents go out to work and their brothers and sisters are at school. They’re more vulnerable because they are isolated and excluded from the rest of their community. Second, there are lots of superstitions about disability, some of them terrifying, like the idea that if you have sex with someone with disabilities it will cure you of AIDS.

Do you work with families?                                       

Yes, we teach parents of children with disabilities about the risk of sexual violence. If a child has been molested or raped, we help parents get legal, psychological, and medical help. We also run information campaigns on disability for local communities. We try to challenge misconceptions and superstitions, and to help people realize how serious sexual violence against children is. A lot of cases are covered up or settled out of court by the head of the village and the families concerned, which is illegal because rape is still a crime.

Is the project targeted at the public authorities too? 

Yes, our awareness-raising activities are also targeted at providers of public services including legal, social, psychosocial, medical and educational services. We also coordinate the work of the magistrates who process complaints of sexual abuse and the medical experts who examine the child victims. They didn’t communicate with each other before, which seriously delayed investigations. When we identify a child victim, we also refer them to what we call an “intervention group,” which brings together relevant representatives of the police, and the judicial, education, and medical systems to examine and case-manage the victims.

What progress have you made?

Children are much more aware of sexual violence now—more than 30,000 children in all three countries took part in our activities and were made aware of this violence. They’re often more aware than the adults. The project has also enabled some 600 child victims of sexual violence to be identified and provided with care and treatment.

Is it difficult to talk with children about something that’s so taboo?

No, not at all. They’re often well aware of the problem already. Whether they’ve been a victim of violence themselves or they’ve heard about it, a child is always the first to witness the trauma caused by sexual violence. Children come up with lots of ideas of how to raise the awareness of the general public. The project has helped children talk more freely about a problem that’s normally hidden away.