The groundbreaking report, released by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention and the University of Cape Town, found that 784,967 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 had been sexually abused. South Africa’s first nationwide study on sex abuse has found that one in three young people will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 17, with boys at a higher risk than girls.
Of that number, no boys reported these incidents while just 31% of girls told the police or an authority figures about their experiences.
In assembling data for the report, researchers interviewed more than 10,000 children, conducted focus groups with community representatives, and held discussions with care workers.
In their findings, the seven authors distinguished between contact abuse, which is frequently penetrative, and exposure abuse, which is defined as victims being forced to witness sexually explicit events, such as masturbation or pornographic material.
Professor Catherine Ward, one of the study’s authors, said girls were found to be more likely to suffer contact abuse, while boys were more frequently victims of exposure abuse.
Ian Welle-Skitt, spokesman for UBS Optimus Foundation who commissioned the study, said that “even though the forms the abuse takes may differ, it can nonetheless be equally harmful to the victim and should be treated just as seriously.”
Speaking to the health reporting site Bhekisisa, Julia Privalova Krieger, from the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, said the findings identify “a critical gap in programme design that needs to be taken into account – the experience of boys”.
The report estimated there were more than 350,000 cases of underage sexual abuse in 2015 alone
The study found the major risk factor for sexual victimisation in South Africa is alcohol and drug abuse.
The children of substance abusers can be up to 1.5 times or even twice as likely to suffer sexual abuse, with the country’s high alcohol consumption per capita as well as a high rate of drug abuse posing a significant problem.
The researchers also heard an increasing number of cases of peer-on-peer sexual abuse, but co-author Lilian Artz said it remains unclear whether this indicates an increase, or whether the more in-depth research methods simply provided a clearer picture.
What is clear from the findings is that abuse is both under-reported and has been underestimated, particularly for boys, and that there is a clear link between sexual abuse and ill-effects on mental health and wellbeing.
“All forms of abuse, including child sexual abuse, are associated with sequelae such as sexual risk behaviours, mental health disorders including anxiety, depression and PTSD, and substance misuse,” the report notes. “All of these – particularly mental health problems – can affect ability to perform at school.”
The authors say sexual abuse and maltreatment of children is preventable, but until now the lack of reliable data has hindered the development of systems needed to protect and support them.
Previous research has underscored the vulnerability of young girls to sexual abuse, but the risks to young boys – and the seriousness of “no-contact” sexual abuse – has frequently been overlooked, the authors argue.
But as South Africa battles with a critically overburdened care system – it was recently reported that there were fewer than 750 social workers caring for over a million children – schools are taking the strain despite many being severely under-resourced.
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“Caring for the carers” is a significant challenge, said Artz, and the lack of support for social workers, teachers and other guardians currently makes it difficult for children to report abuse safely. “There needs to be confidence in the system that something will happen if abuse is reported,” she said.
There is already comprehensive legislation in place to protect children and deal with sexual offenders, but user-friendly protocols and “a really simple information and referral process” was lacking, Artz said.
“The complexities of the legal system can be overwhelming. We don’t need teachers to be able to recite the Sexual Offences Act or the Children’s Act. We need five simple steps that teachers can take when abuse is reported,” the researcher said.
Ultimately, it’s the role of caring communities that will help eradicate the problem, Artz said. “We have to rely on all people who have contact with children to be vigilant. It’s every adult’s responsibility.”
A version of this article first appeared on the Daily Maverick