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Referral of sexual violence against children: How do children and caregivers use a formal child protection mechanism in Harare, Zimbabwe?
Despite widespread expansion of policies to prevent and respond to violence over the past three decades, sexual violence against children remains common globally. Zimbabwe has expansive legal and policy frameworks to prevent, and formal services to respond to, sexual violence. Yet evidence is lacking about how children and caregivers use formal referral mechanisms. This study conducted secondary qualitative analysis of sexual violence cases [N=74] processed in Harare Magistrates Court and referred to Childline Zimbabwe, in October-November 2020, to examine which experiences children and/or their caregivers formally refer as sexual violence; how they perceive and manage these experiences; and how this relates to national policy contexts.
Caregivers, particularly female, were central to reporting sexual violence. Data suggested that some forms of sexual violence were formally referred, including community sexual assault and abuse within families, however some adolescent girls faced blame and shame. There were gaps in reporting of sexual violence against boys, and sexual violence from dating partners or authority figures, with data suggesting that gendered stigma, shame, and fears of institutional authority, were barriers for reporting. Caregivers also reported consensual adolescent sexual relationships to police. These findings contribute to the limited evidence on forms of sexual violence that are and are not formally referred globally, and in sub-Saharan African settings. Existing policy frameworks in Zimbabwe can be strengthened around age of maturity, adolescent sexuality, sidelining of boy survivors, and the role of schools in child protection. Interventions should support caregivers’ efforts to report violence, while also addressing gendered blame and stigma, and stigmatisation of adolescent sexuality.