The Optimus Study – a three-year national prevalence and incidence study involving over nine thousand 15-17 year old South Africans – provides the first-ever nationally representative data in South Africa on child sexual abuse, maltreatment and exposure to other forms of violence. As such, it contributes to the evidence base critical to national child protection planning and programming to improve response and prevention interventions.
The findings show that sexual abuse of children and adolescents is widespread: more than one third of South African young people reported having been exposed to some form of sexual abuse. Also, 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. This is a departure from much of the literature, which usually focuses on the particular vulnerability of girls.
The study also stresses the inclusion of boys’ experiences in the conceptualisation and operationalisation of reporting and investigation practices, psychosocial support services, and health and legal responses, which remains a critical gap. The study further highlights risk and protective factors with parental influence and intervention playing a key determining role.
Additionally, since this study is based on young people’s – both girls’ and boys’ – own experiences of sexual abuse and perception of sexual victimisation in their lives, it makes a valuable contribution towards ensuring that children’s voices are heard as well as making the issue of violence against children and its impact visible.