Noelle Museshi Murunga | Brave Movement Africa Advocacy Officer 

When I first started my career as an advocate for youth and adolescents’ sexual and reproductive health, I was confronted with the harsh truth that young adolescent girls had to endure abuse to get access to menstrual hygiene management products.

The painful reality of teenage girls having to transact sex for pads is one particular experience that has stuck with me ever since. It was even more depressing to learn that transactional sex was deeply ingrained in their culture, with community matriarchs and grandmothers supporting the scourge, demonstrating how pervasive child sexual abuse is engrained in society.

The Disconnect between Policy and Practice

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC) stands as a pivotal regional human rights instrument, purposefully adopted by the African Union to address issues of protecting and safeguarding the rights and the wellbeing of children in Africa. Despite the ratification of the Charter by 50 African Union member states, the persisting prevalence of childhood sexual violence serves as a vital reminder of the gap between legislative mandates and real-life outcomes.

Last month, the Africa Committee of Experts on the Rights and  Welfare of Children (ACERWC) convened for its 43rd Ordinary Session in Maseru, Lesotho. The ACERWC serves as the designated organ of the African Union tasked with overseeing the enforcement of the Charter and advancing the cause of children’s rights throughout the continent. While acknowledging the strides made by member states in safeguarding the rights of children, there remains a substantial disparity in addressing violence against them.

Childhood Sexual Violence: A Public Health Emergency

The launch of the Teenage Pregnancy Report during the 43rd Ordinary Session highlighted the urgent need for action against child sexual violence. Data from the Violence Against Children Surveys (VACs) painted the grim reality that child sexual violence is a public health emergency that requires immediate action. The report exposed alarming trends:

  • Rape escalated the prevalence of teenage pregnancies
  • There is a well-established connection between child marriage and teenage pregnancy. It is underscored by the fact that 80% of teenage mothers in most African countries are married or co-habit with a male partner
  • Online sexual abuse and exposure to sexual content played a significant role in driving teenage pregnancy. Between 2019 and 2020, child-generated sexual material increased by 77%, and reports of online sexual exploitation surged by 100%.
  • Even when survivors of sexual abuse and violence report the incidents, they often struggle to receive the necessary redress for future prevention, healing and justice.

This isn’t just a concern—it’s a critical emergency demanding swift response and we cannot afford to wait!

The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated. Every moment counts in protecting our children. AU member states need to prioritize combating child sexual abuse and all forms of violence against children, both online and offline.

Ending Sexual Violence in schools is  a conduit for promoting Agenda 2063 through Education

This year’s African Union theme, “Education for All Children in Africa,” highlights a critical imperative, yet research reveals that schools remain hotspots for violence against children. For the African child to benefit fully from quality education as outlined in Aspiration 6 of Africa’s Agenda 2040 for Children, we must ensure that educational environments are safe environments for learning.

Agenda 2063, Africa’s blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into a global powerhouse for the future, has laid the foundation for action. Aspiration 6 emphasizes the centrality of people-driven development, particularly leveraging the potential of African women, youth, and, crucially, children. Recognizing the gendered nature of violence, Aspiration 6 underscores the urgency of eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against women, girls and children.

Central to this vision is the prerequisite that safe schools are foundational to quality education. Schools bear the responsibility of preventing violence against children, with teachers and staff serving as custodians of their safety. Therefore, it is vital to provide comprehensive training to educators on child protection and safeguarding measures, ensuring their effective implementation within school environments.

The Time to Act is Now!

Addressing childhood sexual violence in Africa requires a collective effort involving not only individual nations but also regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and the broader international community. While each African nation and community may face distinct challenges and manifestations of violence, there are overarching norms, such as the gendered nature of violence, and prevalent forms of abuse like female genital mutilation (FGM), forced child marriage, and online child sexual exploitation and abuse (OCSEA), that demand urgent attention.

This complex issue necessitates bold and coordinated actions from all sectors. It’s not a task that falls solely on the shoulders of one entity; rather, it requires a united front and concerted efforts from governments, civil society, international organizations, and local communities to bring about the transformative change needed to protect the rights and well-being of Africa’s children. A pan-African response is therefore necessary to effectively address violence in all its forms across Africa

The inclusion of survivor voices within the AU will also play a critical and distinct role in ending childhood sexual violence. Quoting one of our survivor advocates,

As we anticipate the upcoming 44th Ordinary Session later this year, I am convinced that together, we hold the power—and the moral obligation—to forge a safer world for our children.

For if not us, who will?