Sexual violence among adolescent girls- who is to blame?

January 30, 2024

Sexual violence is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, comment or advance of a sexual nature, or acts aimed at trafficking or otherwise directed against a person’s sexuality.” Nearly one out of every three women will be a victim of sexual violence at least once in her life.

In Senegal, 18% of adolescent girls and young women aged between 15 and 24 years have experienced physical violence at some point in their lives from the time they were 15. According to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 12% of young girls and women were victims of sexual and physical violence in 2022. The Association des Juristes Sénégalaises (AJS), meanwhile, estimates that 21.5% of sexual violence results in early pregnancy among teenagers under 18.

While everyone agrees on the harmful consequences of sexual violence, particularly among adolescents, fear of social stigma often prevents victims from reporting. This stems from differences in belief as to who is ‘responsible’ for the offense. Indeed, sexual violence is widely seen as a distressing ordeal with deep short and long-term wounds for the victim. However, when it comes to establishing the root causes, victims are often left with the blame. In several regions across Senegal, 66% of sexual violence cases have not been brought to trial because the victims and their families often conceal crucial facts that could act as evidence. It is for this reason that the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) undertook a study to establish the community’s perceptions of culpability for sexual violence among adolescent girls in the communes of Kaolack town (Kaolack region) and Gossas (Fatick region). These two study sites are in regions where sexual and gender-based violence is common at 13.4% and 8.8% in Fatick and Kaolack, respectively.

The mixed study, conducted in 2022 by APHRC in collaboration with Enda-Santé, revealed that 5.8% in Gossas and 5.3% in Kaolack of adolescents aged 15-19 years have experienced sexual assault. The data indicate that victims find it difficult to report cases of violence for fear of being misjudged or even accused of being responsible for what happened to them, as one of the respondents from Gossas recounted: ‘I would have preferred him to be caught on the facts because when he was arrested, people said that it was just accusations. That I was lying, and I was accused of being an easy girl.’

Victims also said they were often ashamed to leave their homes for fear of the accusatory stares from the community. This was confirmed by one of the institutional actors involved in gender-based violence advocacy, based in Dakar: ‘When you’re marked by society, it’s as if the gaze of others weighs on you and everything you do. This can also have an impact on your school results.’

Indeed, some sections of society, and paradoxically the girls themselves, blame the victim for the rape. ‘I can’t say that they are the ones who carry out the act, but we ourselves are the ones who push the person to sexually assault us by the way we dress, the way we act…Sometimes, even at home, there’s someone who looks at you, and by the way you’re dressed, he wants you. It’s the girls who attract the men,’ said one of the young female interviewees.

This is supported by some members of the community, notably religious leaders, who consider that girls who have been raped behaved in a reprehensible way, leading to the assault. An Imam in Kaolack asserted that these are girls who like to ‘associate too much with men’. Another said: ‘Once, a young girl was screaming and calling for help from the area around the railway line at dusk. If she had been with her mother at that hour, nothing would have happened to her.’

However, the opinions vary widely, with others unable to justify rape or sexual assault, believing that the adolescents are victimized because she is in a position of weakness. ‘If the girl is a victim, it’s because she’s weaker and her age doesn’t allow her to resist the aggressor,’ said a religious leader from Kaolack. Others consider that it is the poor upbringing and/or lack of education of boys, drug addiction, the trivialization of sexuality and the influence of the media that drive them to commit such an act. ‘The first fact that explains this violence remains drug use. You must be an abnormal person to do that,’ said a female adolescent girl participant.

On the other hand, some people point to the responsibility of parents. ‘Some parents leave early for work, leaving the maid at home with the children. Someone comes into the house, and the maid figures that this person is a regular in the family. At some point, this person is tempted to do inappropriate things in the house,’ said a female parent from Kaolack. Moreover, poverty encourages some parents to expose their daughters, as this female institutional actor interviewed affirms: ‘Often our mothers send our little sisters to go and see the ‘uncle’ next door to tell him that they don’t have enough to prepare the meal. Most of the time, these young people end up abused.’ There are many different opinions when it comes to identifying the person at fault in cases of sexual violence.

In spite of the varying extremes of these perceptions, it is evident that something needs to be done. The initial findings led to a raft of recommendations being implemented through a series of interventions in both sites. These activities involved raising community awareness of sexual violence and its consequences for the victim. Adolescents, youth, and adults are sensitized through activities involving both generations (intergenerational sessions and meetings).  Awareness-raising activities were complemented by care, assistance, and support services for victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Interventions also focused on removing obstacles to reporting and promoting more appropriate perceptions and reactions towards victims. It is important that all the implementation actors work in synergy to raise community sensitization and provide care for victims of sexual violence. Similarly, national and local authorities should support free medical and psychosocial care and facilitate legal proceedings.