By Nicole Itano
Monday, February 24, 2003
South African prosecutors are adopting a hard-line stance against rape, instituting special courts to address the crime and studying the reasons behind the astounding breadth of the problem.
PROTEA NORTH, South Africa (WOMENSENEWS)--In a brightly colored room next door to the main court building in Soweto, a sprawling township of several million outside Johannesburg, a lanky 11-year-old girl lies sprawled on a large cushion, listlessly flipping through the pages of a picture book.
She should be at school or playing with friends. Instead she's learning how to testify against the man she says raped her.
Rape in South Africa has reached epidemic proportions, with poor women in areas such as Soweto bearing the brunt of the violence. Perhaps even more unsettling is the number of child rapes. Here in Soweto, 70 percent of the cases dealt with by the region's new sexual offenses court are of children. Nationally, the estimate is nearer 40 percent. The youngest case of rape here was of a 3-month-old; in other parts of the country there have been reports of sexual attacks on newborn infants.
The 11-year-old girl, whose name cannot be used because of her age, is typical of South Africa's rape victims. She comes from a poor neighborhood, a shantytown somewhere in Soweto. One day, a neighbor lured her into his shack and raped her. When he was done, he gave her a bucket of water and told her to wash herself. Then he gave her two rand (about 25 cents) and sent her on her way.
"Neighbors saw her leaving his shack and when they confronted him and asked him why he would have sex with a little girl," said Nthabiseng Motsau, the chief sexual offense prosecutor in Protea North. "He said it was because women were too expensive."
South Africa is widely believed to have one of the highest incidences of rape in the world. About 50,000 rapes were reported in 2001 alone, although women's groups say this is just a small percentage of total number. They estimate that a woman is raped every 26 seconds and a child every 15 minutes. The South African police service gives a slightly lower estimate of one woman every 36 seconds.
No one knows why there are so many rapes in South Africa. Poverty is certainly part of it, but other countries are poor yet do not have the high rate of sexual assault that South Africa does. Thoko Majokweni, director of the sexual offenses and community affairs unit of South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, says finding out why the country's rate of sexual assault is so high is half the battle.
"We're doing research into the root causes because we can't just be treating the symptoms all the time," she says from the Pretoria office where she oversees the prosecution of sexual offenses and family related matters. "You can't prevent what you don't know."
One popular explanation for South Africa's high sexual assault statistics, and particularly the high incidence of rape of children, is the belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS.
Studies on the subject have yielded mixed results. Some have found that only a very small number of South Africans actually believe that myth, while others, conducted in different parts of the country by different researchers, have found that the view is widely held.
Motsau has no doubts of the power of that myth. While few defendants in her court have u