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Baby Gang Rape Outrages South Africa

A recent increase in the number of rapes of children has sparked outrage in South Africa. The shocking statistics emerged after the nation learned of the brutal gang rape of a nine-month-old baby.

South Africa has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, and the government acknowledges that rape is an all too common crime. But even jaded South Africans were shocked last week when six men were accused of raping a nine-month-old baby in the sleepy Northern Cape town of Upington.

The baby's mother says she left the baby alone to go buy food. When she returned, the child was screaming and covered in blood. The baby has since undergone surgery and is expected to survive.

But will she ever really recover? Annette van Rensburg heads the Family and Marriage Society of South Africa, which has a counseling program for victims of sexual abuse.

"I think the child's trust is totally destroyed, and it would affect relationships very, very badly," she says. "This child may withdraw. The child may find that they could never, ever in their life again trust anybody."

The crime has horrified the nation. Hundreds of angry protesters thronged outside the Kimberly Magistrates Court on Monday, when the accused were formally charged. The crowd demanded the reinstatement of the death penalty, and the castration of the alleged rapists.

But South Africans have been equally shocked to discover how common child rape is here. Police statistics say nearly 32,000 children have been sexually assaulted in the last 18 months. The figures refer to both rapes and attempted rapes.

The nation is struggling to understand it all. Why would anyone rape a nine-month-old baby - or any other child? And why does it happen so often here? Experts acknowledge it is nearly impossible for most people to fathom what could motivate such a crime.

Some blame alcohol and drugs. Some say rapists are trying to achieve a feeling of power over their victims. Many point to a persistent myth circulating in southern Africa, in which men believe having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS.

Others say there is simply a culture of violence in South Africa - a nation still recovering from decades of oppression under apartheid. Kelly Hatfield heads a Johannesburg-based group called People Opposing Women Abuse.

"I think that South Africa as a country has had an incredibly violent past. I think, the way people have communicated in South Africa in the previous dispensation - and even now - was with the language of violence," she says. "And, I think, children have grown up in that kind of society. They've seen their parents behave in particularly violent ways toward each other and toward others, and have probably learned behaviors consistent with that."

South Africans are also questioning the way their legal system deals with violence against children.

A Pretoria judge recently sparked outrage when he sentenced a father to just seven years in jail for raping his 14-year-old daughter. In doing so, the judge ignored minimum sentencing guidelines that should have led to a much longer imprisonment. The judge argued the man poses no real danger to society, and his daughter would probably recover.

Women's and children's rights groups call that decision insensitive and out of touch. There have been angry calls to remove the judge from the bench.

Ms. Hatfield believes South Africans will be able to make their country safer for children - eventually.

"The levels of activism and the levels of commitment in this country have brought down apartheid. And if we can do that, then we can deal with the issues of violence against women and children as effectively in the long run," she says. "It's just not going to happen overnight. But if we each wake up every day and say, 'what can we do differently today,' then we have a chance of changing that line of communication to something more positive than violence."

That activism is already emerging. A Johannesburg mother was so outraged by the Upington crime that she started an e-mail campaign to get the government - and other South Africans - to do something about the scourge of child rape.