SA has been given a thumbs up for its legislation on child abuse, but falls short on implementation, according to research published on Wednesday. 

SA ranks 15th out of 40 countries included in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Out of the Shadows Index, which covers 70% of the world’s youth younger than 19.

It scored above average for its legislation, taking seventh place, but fell down on its score for government’s capacity to implement measures to protect children, for which it ranked 27th. It also scored below average for the safety of its environment for children, for which it ranked 32nd.

The index did not measure the extent of sexual violence against children, but sought to draw attention to the gaps countries face as they seek to end all forms of violence against children by 2030, as set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals, said the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Conor Griffin.

Very few countries have programmes to try and prevent sexual violence against children, partly because there is little societal support for them, he said. “You can never hope to catch and prosecute all child abusers. Prevention is a far more effective response, but it gets very little attention.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit devised an index to rank the 40 countries encapsulating a score for each country’s legal framework; its environment for children; the government’s commitment and capacity; and the engagement of industry, civil society and the media.The environment score considers the safety and stability of a country, the social protection available to children and their families, and whether societal norms lend themselves to open discussion about the issues.

The UK scored highest, followed by Sweden and Canada.

“Sexual violence against children takes place mostly in the shadows, but is a universal threat — no boy or girl is immune,” the report says.

The report found SA had brought comprehensive legislation on sexual offences against children into effect, but more could be done to improve support for victims and resources for legal and law-enforcement professionals. For example, while there are guidelines for prosecuting cases of sexual abuse, they do not pay special attention to cases involving children. And while SA’s criminal law has a specific chapter dedicated to sexual offences against children, there are no child-specific rape laws, it notes.

Lisa Vetten, a gender-violence researcher at Wits University, said post-rape care is lacking in SA for both adults and children, and decisions by some provinces to stop funding NGOs providing child protection services and do it in-house have led to a deterioration in services.

She questioned the report’s finding that there are weaknesses in SA’s legislative framework, saying there are strong provisions to protect children, ranging from the Children’s Act, to a specific chapter dealing with children in the Sexual Offences Act. She said that her research indicates that SA’s courts try to prioritise children’s cases.