About 50 children per day are raped in South Africa as the country struggles with the legacy of apartheid, HIV/Aids and an influx of sexual material into a society which remains somewhat puritanical.
That is according to the official figures, which specialist groups say grossly underestimate the true scale of the phenomenon depicted in police reports.
Regular police reports recount girls as young as five being raped, sometimes by boys who are barely in their teens.
South Africa is notorious for the number of rape cases and, according to Captain Percy Morokane, about 40% of the victims, or 20 000 a year, are under the age of 18.
But according to organisations such as Rape Crisis, the total of all rapes reported, more than 52 000 a year, is far from the real figure which they put at more than a million.
Luke Oambrecht, head of the Teddy Bear Clinic, part of Johannesburg’s hospital service which treats young rape victims, says that 91% of perpetrators are people who know the child.
Of them, “about 20% are people acting in the capacity of father in other words, the mother’s boyfriend, the mother’s living partner, the stepfather, the biological father.
“And another 20% are juveniles under 18 years old, other children, which is another worry.”
“We have younger and younger offenders,” Oambrecht added.
“We have heard of seven-year-old boys who have attempted to sodomise other boys.”
Oambrecht said one explanation was the country’s violent past under the puritanical and repressive apartheid regime of white minority rule, coupled with the rush of sexually explicit material that followed its demise in 1994.
Parents are embarrassed to talk about sex to their children, who do not understand why they cannot practise what they see, he added, while the HIV/Aids pandemic, affecting one adult in five in South Africa, links sex with death, an even more taboo subject.
Other factors are the crowded housing conditions of many poorer people, living in one-roomed shacks of corrugated iron and cardboard, where violence and sexual promiscuity are common.
Social worker Linda Smith commented, “Children are sexualised far earlier because of the lack of boundaries and poor living conditions, being exposed to sexual activities and family violence.”
“People all live on top of one another, there is a lot of sexual abuse,” Oambrecht said, adding that another big issue was poor maternal care.
Pediatrician Lorna Jacklin, one of the founders of the Teddy Bear Clinic, agreed, saying that “the only way to protect the children is educating the mothers.”
A typical mother is “a very young woman who has no skills, no resources, living in isolation, so disempowered that she is not able to protect her child generally,” Jacklin said.
“The level of education of men is important too,” rejoined Oambrecht. “If they take care of their children, they are less likely to hurt them.
“But our country is still very traditional, very few men are able to take on that role and violence is still a way of solving the problems, whatever they are.”