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South Africa Child Rape Focuses Attention on Broad Problem - 2002-01-26

The rape of a South African infant last October has focused attention on the broader problem of child rape in that country. Now, a new national survey reveals how common the act is against girls in South Africa. The survey finds that school teachers are frequently the aggressors.

A survey of nearly 12,000 South African women, aged 15-to-49, by the Medical Research Council of Pretoria reveals grim statistics. One-point-six percent of the women said they had been raped before the age of fifteen. The vast majority of the rapes occurred in children 10-to-14 years old, and the rest in girls between five-and-nine.

The survey leader, physician Rachel Jewkes, says the 1.6 percent figure is strikingly similar to data from the United States. What differs is who the rapists are. "It is the perpetrator pattern that is the most striking finding," she says. "In the United States, the largest perpetrator group is family members for child rape. They are also a large group in South Africa, but they came second behind school teachers."

The Medical Research Council found that school teachers account for one-third of all South African rapists.

Dr. Jewkes says the figures, published in the medical journal "The Lancet," confirm that rape of girls, especially in school, is a major public health problem in South Africa.

In December, the South African Institute of Race Relations issued figures supporting this view. It cited police data showing that children 17 and under are the victims of 41 percent of all rapes and attempted rapes in the country. Nearly one-third of these acts are committed against girls younger than eleven.

Despite recent media coverage of the phenomenon in South Africa, the Institute and Dr. Jewkes say this form of child abuse is not new. "This has been going on for many, many years, and very, very little action has been taken against people who are known to rape schoolchildren," he says. "Even where action is taken, it is very, very slow."

Dr. Jewkes also says South African state agencies that deal with crimes against women are underfunded.

She attributes the society's tolerance of child rape to its culture of gender inequality and a very high incidence of all types of violence. Pediatric surgeon Graeme Pitcher of Johannesburg Hospital says part of the problem may also lie in a widely held superstition. "It's well known that there is this myth that exists in Africa, that if one has sex with a virgin, one can cleanse oneself of sexually transmitted diseases, specifically HIV," he says. "It's the prevalence of this superstition that allows these rapes to be occurring."

Dr. Pitcher says this may account more for rapes of infants than of adolescent girls. South African news media have reported three sexual attacks on girls younger than one-year-old in recent months, most notably of a nine-month-old in October in Northern Cape Province.

Dr. Pitcher says infant rape appears to be increasing in frequency. He blames it in part on the South African government's reluctance to accept the link between HIV and AIDS. He says this results in the lack of HIV drugs and makes men with HIV desperate for an alternative therapy. "People who feel that they are dying from this disease, who don't have access to treatment will resort out of desperation to these traditional myths in an attempt to cure themselves of HIV," he says.

Dr. Pitcher calls for harsh sentencing laws to deter potential rapists. In Pretoria, Rachel Jewkes praises new Department of Education rules prohibiting sexual relations between faculty and students, but says enforcement remains weak.

As a result of the widespread shock over the October infant rape, South Africa's Parliament plans to hold hearings on child abuse.

But Dr. Jewkes is skeptical of their impact. "Any attention is good, but there has been a lot of talk about rape in South Africa for several years, and the talk has not been backed up," she says.