Forensic DNA Analysis in the Fight Against Sexual Assault in Africa: Insights for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Author: Yahaya Sumara Sulley

Department of Forensic Sciences, Faculty of Biosciences, University for Development Studies, Tamale – Ghana

Recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Sexual assault is a prevalent issue worldwide, affecting people. The rate of sexual violence in Africa is among the highest in the world. One in three women globally, around 736 million, have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, according to a new analysis by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the report, women residing in low-income countries, such as Fiji in the Oceanic Islands, southern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, are at a higher risk of experiencing physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence during their lifetime.

It is essential to recognize that sexual violence affects individuals of all genders, ages, and abilities and that access to justice for all survivors of sexual assault is critical. Age is also a significant factor in sexual violence, and children are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. In Africa, child sexual abuse is a prevalent issue, with estimates suggesting that one in five African children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18.

Physical disabilities and mental health conditions can also increase the vulnerability of individuals to sexual violence. These individuals may face additional barriers in accessing justice due to societal attitudes and prejudices about disability and mental illness. However, it is crucial to recognize that all survivors of sexual violence, regardless of their abilities or mental health status, deserve access to justice.

Male victims of sexual violence often face additional challenges in accessing justice due to societal stigmas and stereotypes about male victimhood. However, it is crucial to recognize that male survivors of sexual violence require the same support and resources as female survivors.

Prostitutes are among the most vulnerable populations to sexual assault and other forms of violence due to the social stigma attached to their profession and their often marginalized status in society. In some cases, perpetrators of sexual assault on prostitutes may attempt to use the nature of the victim’s profession to their advantage by claiming that the sexual encounter was consensual or that the victim was lying about the assault.

In recognition of the impact of sexual assault globally and on African communities, April is designated International Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During this time, organizations and individuals come together to raise awareness of sexual assault, support survivors, and work to prevent sexual violence.

The Role of Forensic DNA in Solving Sexual Assault

One significant tool in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases is forensic DNA analysis. DNA evidence can be collected from a variety of sources, including blood, semen, hair, and skin cells. By analyzing this evidence, forensic scientists can identify suspects and link them to the crime scene. In addition to identifying perpetrators, forensic DNA analysis can also be used to exonerate innocent suspects who have been wrongly accused of sexual assault crimes. DNA evidence can be used to demonstrate that the suspect was not present at the scene of the crime or was not involved in the assault.

DNA technologies such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) and Short Tandem Repeat (STR) analysis are used in solving sexual assault cases. PCR amplifies DNA samples, while STR analysis compares DNA profiles from the suspect and crime scene. Combined with a national DNA database, these technologies provide accurate identification of perpetrators and can exonerate wrongly accused individuals.

The use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases has revolutionized the way these cases are investigated and prosecuted. In the past, sexual assault cases were often difficult to prosecute because of the lack of physical evidence and the victim’s reluctance to come forward. However, DNA evidence has provided a powerful tool for law enforcement and prosecutors to identify perpetrators and build stronger cases in sexual assault.

Emerging DNA technologies such as Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) are being explored for their potential in solving sexual assault cases. NGS can generate complete DNA profiles from limited or degraded samples through proper ethical, sample collection and validation procedures.

Forensic genetic genealogy involves the use of genealogical databases and DNA analysis to identify suspects in criminal investigations. DNA phenotyping uses genetic information to predict an individual’s physical characteristics, such as eye color or hair color. Both technologies are increasingly being used to help solve cold cases and accurately identify suspects in sexual assault investigations.

Generally, forensic DNA analysis plays a crucial role in identifying perpetrators of sexual assault crimes and providing evidence to support the prosecution of these cases. Forensic DNA analysis can provide objective evidence to support the victim’s account and refute any false claims made by the perpetrator.

For instance, in cases of sexual assault on prostitutes, forensic DNA analysis can be particularly important. Furthermore, the social stigma attached to their profession can make it challenging for sex workers to report incidents of sexual assault or even seek medical attention. Also, due to the nature of their work, prostitutes are often in contact with multiple sexual partners. This can result in a lack of physical evidence making it difficult to identify a suspect without DNA evidence.

Regardless of the power of this tool, Forensic DNA analysis has not been effectively utilized in several high-profile cases in Africa because of existing challenges. However, some success stories have been chalked in countries such as Ghana, South Africa and Kenya.

Meeting the Challenges

Despite the critical role that forensic DNA analysis plays in identifying perpetrators of sexual assault and supporting criminal investigations, there are challenges to its effective use in Africa which needs to be addressed philosophically.

These challenges include limited resources, inadequate training and expertise among forensic personnel, and a lack of awareness and understanding of the technology among law enforcement and judicial officials. Many African countries lack the resources and expertise needed to conduct DNA analysis effectively. This has led to a backlog of untested DNA evidence in many African countries, which can delay the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases.

Another challenge is the lack of forensic science communication in most African countries. There is a lack of awareness and education about DNA evidence among law enforcement officials and the general public. Many people in Africa are not familiar with DNA evidence, its technicalities and its implications for sexual assault investigations. This has potentially led to the mishandling of evidence, inaccurate analysis, and wrongful convictions or acquittals.

The is a need for an Africa DNA Center of Excellence in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Rwanda. These countries have been making strides to be at the forefront of forensic DNA technology and training in their regions and it will be worth beginning from there. The proposed Center will serve as a resource with state-of-the-art testing and training laboratories. It will also help the training and development of expertise in advanced DNA analysis, develop validation guidelines and training modules. I believe that this will help minimize case backlog and improve the level of expertise in African countries.

To overcome these challenges, it is essential to invest in the development of forensic DNA infrastructure and expertise in Africa. This includes improving laboratory facilities and equipment, increasing the number of trained forensic scientists, and providing ongoing education and training to law enforcement and judicial officials. There is also a need for public education and awareness campaigns to increase understanding and support for the use of DNA evidence in sexual assault investigations.

One potential solution to the lack of resources and expertise in forensic DNA analysis is the use of mobile forensic laboratories. Mobile forensic laboratories are fully equipped laboratories that can be transported to crime scenes or areas with limited resources. These laboratories can provide on-site DNA analysis, which can speed up the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases ensuring that survivors of sexual assault receive the justice they deserve.

Recognizing Some Heroes in the Fight Against Sexual Assault

The fight against sexual assault has been ongoing for many years. Unfortunately, despite efforts from governments and organizations worldwide, the situation continues to be a major issue affecting millions of people globally. The fight requires the collective efforts of everyone, and here are a few of the many heroes in the fight against this scourge that I would like to highlight.

Rotimi Olawale

Grizelda Grootboom

Makazole Mampimpi

Patricia Kihoro

Penny Lebyane

Xavien Myles

Adelle Onyango

Boitumelo Thage

Malaika Oringo

Mbali Shongwe


Prof. Bruce Budowle

Prof. Lisa Smith and Wangu Kanja

Eugenia Baffour Bankoh


As we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let us also recognize the importance of forensic DNA analysis in sexual assault cases in Africa and work towards addressing the challenges facing its use. Through collaboration and investment, we can ensure that survivors of sexual violence have access to the justice they deserve, and perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes.

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