Why are girls affected by HIV and AIDS more likely to be victims of sexual violence? Research from rural Tanzania

By Kurt Ma Madoerin, Tanzania

“On the way to N. I met a man standing alone in a tree plantation. He greeted me with a Swahili slogan “Mambo?” I answered “Poa”. He asked “Can you come with me so that I escort you to your home?” I agreed and we started to walk. Suddenly, he took out a knife and requested me to put off my clothes and lay down on the ground. I started to cry. He started to beat me with a stick, and forcing me to take my clothes off. He kicked me, I felt down and he started to rape me. He warned me not to tell it to anyone - he said that if I tell this to people he will kill me and chop my body into pieces. Then I got up and walked home. When I arrived at home, my aunt asked me why I delayed at the shop. I told her that the shop was closed. Although I had terrible pains, I didn’t say anything.” (Girl, then 10 years old in Primary School).

“I was studying in Standard two – I was ten years old. One day when I returned from school I met two herd boys. These boys approached me and started to ask me different questions. When they were very close they tried to catch my hands. One kicked my legs and I fell down. They pulled me towards the bush. In the bush they removed my clothes and raped me. When I arrived home I didn’t tell it to anybody although it hurt me so much.” 


 The UNICEF survey “Violence Against Children in Tanzania: Findings from a National Survey 2009” (2011) defines sexual violence as “any sexual act that is perpetrated against someone’s will and encompasses a range of offenses, including a completed nonconsensual sex act (i.e., rape), attempted nonconsensual sex acts, abusive sexual contact (i.e., unwanted touching like kissing, grabbing), and non-contact sexual abuse (e.g., threatened sexual violence, exhibitionism, verbal sexual harassment). The findings from the survey indicate that:

  • 3 out of every 10 females (= 28%) reported at least one experience of sexual violence prior to the age of 18.
  • 1 out of every 16 females (= 6 %) have been physically abused and forced to have sexual intercourse before age of 18 (rape)

From our experience at Tatu Tano, we have good reason to assume that the prevalence of sexual violence in general and for girls affected by HIV and AIDS in particular is much higher than the finding of the national survey. The participants in our self-defense courses have the conducive environment to report incidences of sexual violence. In the last two training in September 2015 out of 86 girls 24 reported attempted rape (28% - one of four) and 18 reported rape (20% - one of five).  

What could explain  this higher prevalence of sexual violence compared to the national survey? One reason is the reliability of the figures. While the national survey mainly administered questionnaires, Kwa Wazee provides in the self-defense courses an atmosphere that supports disclosure. The girls spend twelve consecutive days together which creates trust, togetherness and empathy and allows many participants to disclose their painful experiences. We frequently hear that the girls are sharing their experiences for the first time.

The safe space of the course creates the possibility to expose painful and hidden experiences. This can be done in the whole group (and this is received with much empathy) – or more confidentially to one of the trainers; or can be written down. Awareness that the painful experiences are NOT personal in the sense “that it is only ME” but are also the experiences of so many others takes away an large part of the shame and build up a feeling of sisterhood.

Most of the over 2’000 girls who have been trained in self-defense are children affected by HIV and AIDS. 40% of the TatuTano-members are living with grandparents, 60% are living with an HIV+ parent, mostly the mother. Children, and especially girls, affected by HIV and AIDS show a number of social and economic characteristics which makes them more vulnerable compared to their non-affected peers.

First they are poorer. Kwa Wazee collected data on cash income and expenditures. The mean monthly cash income for households headed by older people and caring for grandchildren was 12 USD per month No surprise that 9 out of 12 children (age group 9-12 years) in a qualitative research on children living with grandmothers frequently had to ask neighbors for soap, because there was no soap at home, or rarely had proteins like beans or the small died fishes (dagaa) with their meals. And it was heartbreaking to hear from the older groups why the younger children are begging for food from neighbors but they can’t do it: “For us because we are a bit older we see the situation at home and we see that there is no food and we must be patient. We cope with the situation, but for a young child it is difficult for him or her to say that the situation I am living in is a result of our problem.” (Glynis Clatcherty: Living with our Bibi.  A qualitative study of children living with grandmothers in the Nshamba area of north western Tanzania. 2008).

It is well known and documented that HIV infection has a big impact on the economic situation of a family – especially if the male breadwinner is deceased. In a self-assessment over 100 beneficiaries of the cash-transfer program of Kwa Wazee estimated a decrease of their working capacities (on a scale from 1-10) from 7.9 to 2,9, a decrease of the food situation from 5.2 to 3.5 and of their savings from 3.2 to 0.  (Kurt Madoerin, Keeping parents living with HIV and AIDS alive, abstract presented at the International Social Protection Conference in Arusha 2014.)

Second: Children and families affected by HIV are exposed to social discrimination and stigma. We were surprised to learn that even grandparents who take care of the orphaned children miss the respect which they expect in the community. In the study Living with our Bibi community members were asked for their opinions of children cared for by grandparents, Many responses focused on the lack of competence of the grandmothers:   “Children who stay with grandparents have bad habits. Because they are not moulded by their grannies in the way they would be by parents”.

“They have no food so just go around and ask and even think of stealing and playing games with street kids and copying bad habits”.

“The girls have unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections”.

The people living with HIV evaluated the breakdown of the social network and the social integration from 7 to 3- which obviously also affects their children.

Finally children affected by HIV are typically “migrants” which weakens their natural protection system. Beyond the traditional system of voluntary “circulation of children” in the extended family – for example a girl being sent to help the grandmother – HIV has brought a lot of forced, involuntary migration due to death or sickness of the primary caretakers, and of the breakdown of the families. Glynis Clatcherty concludes in her 2008 study that “All of the children had moved at least once in their lives…..Many of the children had moved three or four times. The most common pattern was moving after the death of one parent, then after the death of the second to an aunt or uncle and then finally to granny.”

In conclusion a possible indicator for the hypothesis that girls from families with HIV and AIDS are less protected and regarded as “far game” for satisfying sexual desires of family members, teachers, or male community members is the relatively high number of girls who were raped at a very young age of less than 10 years.