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South Africa: Rape & HIV/AIDS - Part One - 2003-09-01

In South Africa, one of the driving and most violent forces behind the AIDS epidemic is rape. By one estimate, there are more than one and a half million rapes in the country each year. Health and social activists say without immediate treatment, up to 40 percent of those rapes could result in infection with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Charlene Smith knows about rape. She is a survivor.

She says, "Well, according to Interpol, we’ve got the worst rape statistics in the world and the most violent rape. There’s 54-thousand reported rapes a year. However, the South African Law Commission, which is a government body, estimates that the real figures for rape is one-point-six million rapes a year."

Ms. Smith – a journalist who has covered the HIV/AIDS epidemic for many years – says a closer look at the rape figures reveals the true horror.

"Round about 75 percent of that rape is gang rape," she says. "So, in South Africa, you’re more likely to be raped by anywhere from three to thirty (30) perpetrators than by a single individual. One of the dangers of that besides the huge psychological traumas and also the physical damage to the woman is that we have six million HIV infected people in this country. And the research that we’ve done in this country shows that you have a 40-percent risk of becoming HIV positive after rape."

Dr. Elna McIntosh is an abuse and HIV counselor. She, too, is a rape survivor. She likens the psychological impact of rape to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – something often associated with war veterans. And if HIV infection follows a rape, the stress may seal a person’s fate.

She says, "In my women that have become (HIV) positive, they tend to get sicker quicker and die much quicker."

Dr. McIntosh also says rapes are driving up the number of abortions in South Africa.

"We run an abortion facility as one of the things that we do," she says. "We do 40 abortions a week, which is just from rape. And this is a private facility. We’re talking about 160 abortions (a month) that have to be done because women did not report it, fell pregnant or the services failed where they weren’t given basic care of emergency contraceptives that should have been administered."

With so many rapes – and the HIV risk so high – why isn’t there a nationwide police crackdown? Charlene Smith says it’s a matter of overload.

She says, "Your average police officer has about 150 to 200 rape files on his or her desk. So they aren’t even opening all of them. They just can’t cope. In our courts, 50-percent of the cases before the courts are rapes. However, there are more prosecutors for traffic fines than there are for rape. In 1999, the department of Justice pointed out as an example that of the 54-thousand people who reported rape in that year, offenders were arrested in over seven percent of those cases."

And of the seven percent who were arrested, she says less than one percent were actually convicted. In other words, of the 54-thousand rape cases, less than 350 people went to jail.

Besides working as a journalist, Ms. Smith counsels children who’ve been raped. And their numbers are skyrocketing.

She says, "Over the last decade, there’s been a 400 percent increase in the rape of children. In Gauteng, which is the province around Johannesburg, which is where I live, from October to December last year there was a 30-percent increase in rape. Most of it the rape of children under the age of twelve. At the Red Cross hospital in Cape Town they did a nine-year study and that showed that the age of children most likely to be raped is three."

She says many children lose the will to live. On average, they die 18 months after being raped and being infected with HIV.

At a recent meeting at a firehouse in the city of Sandton, near Johannesburg, experts on sexual violence and HIV/AIDS gathered to discuss the problem. In my next report, we’ll look at what can be done to prevent HIV infection after a rape occurs.