More than one in three female students at the University of eSwatini reported they had been sexually assaulted in one year, academic research just published reveals.
The assault was most commonly committed by a boyfriend.
Only a minority of the students disclosed their assault to anybody, and many did not think their experiences were ‘sexual assault’ despite reporting experiences that met the legal definition of rape and sexual assault, the research published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found.
Four researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, USA and the University of eSwatini, Faculty of Health Sciences, Mbabane, concluded there was a need to increase intervention and prevention efforts in eSwatini.
A total of 372 of the 1,498 female students enrolled full time (about one in four) at the University of eSwatini (UNESWA) Kwaluseni Campus (formerly University of Swaziland: UNISWA) took part in the research conducted in 2018.
Sixty percent of participants reported experiencing an attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime, and a total of 38 percent reported an assault in the previous 12 months. The vast majority (93 percent) of assailants were known to their victim, and the majority (56 percent) of perpetrators were ‘romantic partners’. The majority of participants in the research had never before disclosed their assault fearing they would be blamed or stigmatized.
Food insecurity, losing a parent before age 21, and hazardous drinking were all significantly associated with experiencing sexual assault in the previous 12 months, as was experiencing a previous assault before the age of 18.
Previously published research suggested about 40 percent of Swazi women in the population as a whole reported that their first sexual encounter was forced or coerced and just over 11 percent of Swazi women had experienced forced sex in their lifetime. One in three young women aged 13 to 24 experienced some form of sexual violence before their 18th birthday. This was a rate 4.75 times the global average and nearly three times higher than that reported by women in the rest of Africa.
The researchers reported, ‘We found that sexual assault is extremely common in the lives of university women in the Kingdom of eSwatini. While lifetime rates of sexual assault were similar to those reported by women aged 18 to 24 in the general population, the prevalence of any attempted or completed sexual assault in the previous 12 months was approximately 1.8 times higher than that reported by women of a similar age.
‘Moreover, we found that approximately 38 percent of women at the UNESWA experienced a completed sexual assault in the past 12 months—a rate nearly four times higher than that reported in the general population of 18 to 24 year olds.’
Taken together, these findings suggest that university women had a significant greater risk of experiencing sexual violence compared to other women in their age.
The researchers said, ‘Only one in five women whose experiences met the legal definition of rape labeled their experience as such. The majority of women who did not disclose their assaults said they did not do so either because they did not think what had happened was abuse, or because they did not know who to tell.’
The researchers said survivors felt that disclosing the assault, ‘meant running the risk of stigma, blame, mockery, and anger or disappointment from their families’.
Survivors also felt that disclosing the assault to an institution, such as the university, was likely to be ‘re-traumatizing and unhelpful’. The researchers added findings suggested that women who had disclosed assault to their friends or family were not always been met with non-judgmental support.
The researchers suggested both formal and informal networks to support survivors could be created and reducing victim blaming might be one key approach for programming and policy makers to consider.
The researchers added, ‘Our findings suggest that there is a strong need for counseling services tailored to survivors of sexual assault in the region.’
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