Cases of child sexual abuse appear to be under-reported considering the number of girls between the ages of 12 and 16 years who get pregnant, as shown in the statistics of the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU).
According to the Criminal Offences Act 1960 (Act 29) Section 101 on sexual and gender-based violence, any sexual encounter with any child under 16 years, whether or not the child consents, is a case of defilement. It is a criminal offence and culprits are liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than seven years or not more than 25 years. Yet only a fraction of recorded teenage pregnancy cases is pursued as sexual violations against a minor.
Teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse cases are recorded at health facilities and with the Police. Statistics from the Ghana Health Service District Health Information Management System (DHIMS) indicate that in 2020 for instance, Ghana recorded a total of 109,888 teenage pregnancies across the 16 administrative regions of Ghana.
Between 2016 and 2020, slightly more than half a million (555,575) teenagers aged 10-19 years got pregnant, and records show that in the five years, 13,444 teenagers between the ages of 10 and 14 years got pregnant.
The annual breakdown of pregnancies involving 10 to 14-year-olds in 2016 shows 2,325 cases, while statistics from DOVVSU show that 1,341 defilement cases were reported. In 2017, when there were 2,585 cases of pregnancy involving 10 to 14-year-olds, 1,686 defilement cases were reported. There were 2,968 cases of pregnancy in 2018, and 2,110 cases in 2019, but the defilement cases for the two years were not provided. In 2020 when there were 2,865 pregnancy cases in girls aged 10 to 14 years, 1,047 cases of defilement were reported.
The numbers of pregnant girls aged 10 to 14 years are an indicator of defilement, yet, there is a huge gap between recorded cases of adolescent pregnancy in girls aged below 16 years and reported defilement cases.
While the Children’s Act makes it mandatory to report cases of child abuse and exploitation to the Department of Social Welfare, a lack of well-coordinated systems between state institutions such as health facilities and schools, and at the community level, especially in rural communities, has meant that many of these cases fall through the cracks.
Ghana’s Child and Family Welfare Policy notes that teachers, healthcare professionals and childcare providers often do not report cases of child abuse, due to a lack of formal referral links between district welfare officers, teachers, school counsellors and healthcare workers.
If there was a coordinated system, a 14-year-old pregnant girl who visits the clinic for ante-natal enrolment should be referred to the Police for investigations so that the man involved would be made to face the law, but GNA checks showed that doesn’t happen.
Madam Esther Tawiah, the Director of the Gender Centre for Empowering Development (GenCED), told the GNA that the responsibility of reporting defilement should not be the burden of parents or guardians alone.
“As soon as a girl under the age of 16 reports at a health facility with pregnancy, investigations must begin to unravel the truth. That way, we can protect girls from this unfortunate situation and make a headway in ending gender-based violence,” she said.
In the current system, traditions and norms as well as ignorance of the criminal element in matters of teenage pregnancy on the part of parents or guardians are key factors in the way defilement cases are handled. Cases are often settled outside the laid-down legal process, with parents of the defiled girls negotiating for an amicable resolution where the perpetrator agrees to take care of the victim or even promises to marry her, after delivery.
This was the case for Madam Mercy Obiyo, a 32-year-old trader whose 14-year-old daughter dropped out of Junior High School when she became pregnant after being defiled by a 37-year-old farmer. Madam Obiyo told the GNA that though she was bitter that a man, who was already married with children had impregnated her daughter, she only wanted him to take responsibility.
“As a single mother, my interest was getting him to take care of the mother and the unborn baby, so it would not be a burden on me,” she said.
Asked if she knew it was an offence to have sexual activity with a girl of her daughter’s age, she responded that once the man accepted responsibility and was prepared to take care of them, there was no need to make a Police report.
Sometimes, defilement cases are reported for the sake of getting a confession from the perpetrator, which can then be used to start negotiations. In a 2013 study on the implementation of the law on defilement at the DOVVSU of the former Ejisu-Juaben Municipality in the Ashanti Region, one respondent told the researchers that the cases are only reported because perpetrators only own up when threatened with court action. Even in cases where the person responsible for impregnating a girl is a fellow teenager, he is threatened with court action to get him to confess and to get him or his parents to commit to contributing to the upkeep of the girl and her baby during pregnancy and after childbirth. Thereafter, the complainants withdraw the case for settlement at home.
“When such gestures are made, we allow them to withdraw the case for settlement,” the respondent from DOVVSU told the researchers.
The Child and Family Welfare Policy acknowledges this culture, noting that families, religious leaders, chiefs and other local community leaders focus on, “compensation, reconciliation and restoring harmony in the family and community, over the needs of the child who has been harmed.”
Mr Shadrack Majisi, an Officer of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) told GNA that child sexual abuse cases are also under-reported because, “people still do not see any criminal offence in such matters; it has always been the perception that a child who is pregnant is simply a spoilt child.”
“We know that in the rural communities, some men are involved in multiple cases of sexually abusing girls but because no legal action are taken, they continue to defile other girls all in the name of marrying them,” he said.
While some negotiate with the perpetrators away from the legal process, others refuse to report for fear of stigmatisation and logistical constraints. Some don’t have confidence in the police or legal system due to negative experiences. There is also the perception that reporting to the Police and the subsequent legal processes are draining and frustrating.
Madam Eva Otoo, a midwife at a public health facility, told GNA that parents of pregnant girls often shy away from reporting to the Police. She recalled a 29-year-old farmer impregnated a 14-year-old girl and gave her some concoctions to abort.
“I suggested to the grandmother that she should report because, having sexual intercourse with a minor, coupled with the attempt to cause abortion, is a crime, but she refused, claiming she had no resources and time to pursue a Police case,” said Madam Otoo.
Even when reports are made, there are no guarantees that the cases will go through the complete legal process.
In the previously mentioned study, out of the 117 reported cases analysed, 78 cases were not pursued, 14 were settled at home, and four were withdrawn. In two of the four withdrawn cases, the parents of the defiled girls wrote letters saying that the matter had been settled amicably at home. Only 14 of the reported cases ended in convictions.
Police records showed that in some of the abandoned cases, medical report forms were not returned, so the cases were dropped.
Such was the case of 34-year-old farm labourer Aku Gavina, whose daughter was defiled. She reported to the Police but didn’t return the medical form due to financial challenges.
“I gathered courage and reported that my 15-year-old daughter had been defiled. I was given a Police medical form, but I didn’t return it because I couldn’t raise the Gh¢300 demanded at the district hospital for the endorsement,” she explained, adding that leaving her job in the cocoa and oil palm plantations to make a trip to the district hospital 45 kilometres away meant loss of her daily wages and source of livelihood.
Mr Majisi, the Officer from CHRAJ, called for structures to ensure that men who impregnate girls aged below 16 years are dealt with according to state laws.
“This is one of the surest ways to deal with this menace of child sexual abuse. We should not see teenage pregnancy as a normal happening,” he said.
However, the agencies charged with protecting children from abuse cite inadequate staff and financial constraints that keep them from taking effective action, as noted in the Child and Family Welfare Policy. A source at the Department of Children under the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection confirmed that for lack of funding and logistics support, the Department has not implemented most of the recommendations and plans of the child welfare policy including the setting up of child protection committees.
Caught in these gaps are the young girls who have to stop schooling and become mothers or wives as adolescents, which is contrary to the laws of Ghana and international conventions on the rights of children.
By Bertha Badu-Agyei