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.”

Myth that Rape is Cure for AIDS May Not Explain its Prevalence

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 used it as a justification for their actions–even the worst lawyer, she says, knows such a defense wouldn’t hold up well–Motsau says many of the perpetrators, particularly those accused of raping young children, are HIV-positive.

Other activists say that the rape problem in South Africa is due largely to the lack of power of women, which is both a legacy of apartheid and of traditional African beliefs about the role of women. Some observers say that apartheid took away power from black men, who then began taking out their feelings of disempowerment on the only people less powerful then themselves, women and children.

“When someone perpetrates an act of rape, it’s about reclaiming a sense of power,” said Kelly Hatfield, formerly the director of People Opposing Women Abuse. “Many women in South Africa feel disempowered financially and socially, they have very little self-esteem.” Most South African women and girls, like the 11-year-old at the Protea North court, are raped by people they know: neighbors, family friends, even, in the case of children, relatives.

These cases are often the hardest to prosecute because the victims are often afraid or unwilling to testify. Women who are raped or whose children are raped often worry that if the rapist goes to jail, the family will be forced to go without food or housing. In one recent case that received media attention here, a mother begged the judge not to send her husband to jail, even though he had raped her young daughter. She said the family would starve. Motsau says many families face similar choices and that South Africa’s public welfare system does not have enough of a safety net for such women.

New Courts Expected to Address Rape Vigorously

Ultimately, however, many observers say that one of the main reasons rape is so prevalent in South Africa is because the justice system is so ineffective in dealing with rape. Most rapists walk free. Of the more than 50,000 rapes reported to police across the country in 2001, only about 5,000 resulted in convictions.

The government has set up 29 new dedicated rape courts like the one at Protea North, which are achieving much higher convictions. These courts have trained prosecutors and judges and far more time to devote to difficult cases.

But such courts only handle a small fraction of the rape and sexual assault claims in the country. In most parts of South Africa, the majority of rapists will never see the inside of a courtroom, much less the inside of a cell.

Still, Hatfield and others say the increased attention to rape is a step in the right direction. “I have a lot of hope. One thing about South Africa is that it’s an activist nation,” she says. “If we can bring down apartheid, we can bring down violence against women.”

Nicole Itano is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

People Opposing Women Abuse:

Human Rights Watch–
“The State Response to Violent Crime on South African Farms”: