Did You Know Poverty Is a Key Factor in Child Rape?

PHOTO: Children comprise up to 80 percent of rape victims in some conflict zones. Tantini Kahindus, 16, village was attacked on July 30, 2010, by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who raped hundreds.

Marc Hoffer/AFP/Getty Images

Sandra, 15, looks like a child but she hasn't been one for a decade. When she was five, her uncle raped her at home in a gang-ridden city in Colombia. The physical pain healed but the mental effects remain.

"I try to feel the same way as other children but it's difficult," she said.

A new Save the Children report weaves stories like Sandra's into a study on rape among children and what might be done to stop it.

Young girls, and some boys, growing up in conflict zones comprise up to 80 percent of rape victims, the report says. That's partially because stabilizing factors like schools and churches are often dissolved in times of upheaval. Families are torn apart and the children who remain often feel powerless. They are the victims, and sometimes at the hands of people who should be protecting them.

Then there are armed combatants in war zones who use rape as a deliberate warfare tactic, the report notes. But it also occurs where there are gender inequalities, economic depression and corrupt or dissolved judicial systems.

Rape is a taboo topic, and the study admits there are gaps in our knowledge of sexual violence. It makes people, from village elders to international peacekeepers, uncomfortable. It often goes unreported, and even when it is reported, the victims are sometimes held responsible and shunned, while little is done to prosecute the perpetrators.

The report focuses on many countries but there are distinct similarities that transcend borders and cultures.

Take the U.S., for example. Broadly speaking, 44 percent of U.S. rape victims are children, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization.

One look at Detroit's poorest neighborhoods and it becomes clear that people living there face some of the same challenges as those living in conflict zones. There is gang violence, crime, and extreme poverty. There are broken families torn apart by incarceration and drug use. And there is most definitely rape.

According to Forbes, there were nearly 300 cases of rape in Detroit, which has one of the highest rates of rape in the United States, during the first four months of 2012. Unfortunately, that's not entirely surprising. A University of New Hampshire fact sheet shows that rape in the United States occurs most frequently where incomes are low and there is discord such as physical abuse and alcoholism. Some studies suggest that rape cases are higher among minorities, but others say minorities are more likely to be low-income and that poverty is the determining factor.

And in the same way that victims of rape in Kenya may choose not to tell authorities because the consequences can be worse than keeping silent, U.S. police forces are often regarded warily by those most in need of protection. That makes prosecuting rapists difficult. A 2001 George Mason University report shows that socioeconomically disadvantaged people, often minorities, tend to distrust police because they are more likely to have had or heard about a negative experience with police.

Clearly, there is no easy solution. Policies in the United States and abroad cannot simply mandate harsher punishments for offenders. True change depends on addressing issues like poverty, cultural factors and judicial accountability. The Save the Children report offers a variety of more concrete suggestions, from strengthening laws against rapists to working with men and boys to stop patterns of discrimination against women.

For Sandra things are slowly getting better. She attends a Save the Children-supported program that works with parents and schools to protect their children. It takes a village and Sandra is lucky to have one. But she's one child, and there is a sea of thousands to go.

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