- The President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, personally took affair after human rights groups documented the widespread occurrence of sexual abuse in the country, believed contribute to Zambia's high AIDS prevalence. Now, government is to take action.
HIV prevalence is five times higher among young girls than young boys. Consequently, "concerted national and international efforts to protect the rights of girls and young women are key to curbing the AIDS epidemic's destructive course," the US group Human Rights Watch concluded in its 121-page report, 'Suffering in Silence: Human Rights Abuses and HIV Transmission to Girls in Zambia,' released three months ago.
Now, the rights group has received a letter from the office of President Mwanawasa, stating that following his review of their report on sexual abuse of girls in Zambia and how this exposes them to HIV infection, he had "ordered the establishment of an interministeral programme on the sexual abuse of girls."
Human Rights Watch immediately hailed the Zambian decision to establish the programme against sexual abuse, but said the group would be "closely following up on this commitment by monitoring if, when and how the program will be established."
The report had mapped the high rate of sexual abuse and violence experienced by Zambian girls and women, especially girls themselves orphaned by AIDS. The report also documents many incidents of abuse of orphan girls at the hands of their guardians. Some of the abused girls were reported to be as young as 11 years old.
- It is no accident that HIV prevalence is five times higher among girls than boys under age 18 in Zambia, said Janet Fleischman of the human rights group, who was also author of the report, in January. "Young girls are preyed upon by older men - including those who dare call themselves guardians or caretakers of these girls, and the government fails to protect them."
In addition, sexual violence and coercion of girls was found to be fuelled by men's targeting for sex younger and younger girls. The young girls are assumed to be HIV-negative or are sought out based on the myth that sex with virgins will cure AIDS.
Further, there was the widespread phenomenon of "sugar daddies," unscrupulous older men who entice girls into sex with offers of gifts or money, which has been a particular focus of media in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa. "The subordinate social and legal status of women and girls makes it difficult for them to negotiate safer sex and to take steps to protect themselves," the study noted.
The report had concluded that laws against sexual violence and abuse were inadequately enforced in Zambia. "The insensitive and ineffectual handling of sexual violence complaints by the law enforcement system often deters victims from reporting cases and impedes prosecution of perpetrators," the group noted.
President Mwanawasa was to have taken note of the recommendations in the group's report, calling his government to intensify training on addressing sexual abuse for police and court officials, to strengthen victim support units of the police, and to ensure rigorous prosecution of perpetrators of these crimes.
With over 20 percent of the Zambian population HIV infected, the Southern African country has one of the highest HIV provenances of the world. The government of President Mwanawasa has been noted to take the pandemic more seriously than the preceding administration of Frederick Chiluba.
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