Carolyn Dempster, BBC News, December 29, 2009
Rape is endemic in South Africa.
On this the police, politicians, sociologists and rape survivors all agree. There is a silent war going on, a war against women and children.
It is a fact that a woman born in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped, than learning how to read.
One in four girls faces the prospect of being raped before the age of 16 according to the child support group, Childline.
Sexual violence pervades society, with one of the highest reported rates of rape in the world, and an alarmingly high incidence of domestic violence and child abuse.
The official crime statistics tell only part of the story.
In 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy, 18,801 cases of rape were reported. By 2001 that figure had risen to 24,892.
The South African Police Service readily admits that even though there is now a greater awareness of the problem, more stringent penalties, and better policing, the vast majority of rapes and attempted rapes still go unreported and unpunished.
During a recent parliamentary debate on child abuse in South Africa, it was reported that there has been a 400% increase in the sexual violence against children over the past decade.
The majority of the victims are 12 years old or younger. Many of the perpetrators are themselves children.
“Baby Tshepang” was just 9 months old when she was brutally raped in the Northern Cape town of Louisvale in the early hours of 27 October, 2001.
Baby rape is not a new phenomenon in South African society, but it is becoming more common.
One possible reason, say Aids activists, is the myth, widespread in southern Africa, that sex with a child or baby will rid a man of HIV or Aids.
South Africa already has more than 4.5 million people living with HIV, more than any other country in the world.
As the HIV pandemic becomes an Aids pandemic, rape can also be a death sentence.
So why is it so bad?
At the root of the problem, says Dr Rachel Jewkes, a senior scientist with the South African Medical Research Council, is men’s attitude towards women.
“In South Africa you have a culture where men believe that they are sexually entitled to women. You don’t get rape in a situation where you don’t have massive gender inequalities.
One of the key problems in this country is that people who commit rape don’t think they are doing anything wrong.”
‘Can’t say no’
Her findings are borne out by the experience of Rose Tamae, a survivor of gang rape, who is HIV positive, and counsels abused women and children in the sprawling township of Orange Farm which lies across the highway from Soweto, west of Johannesburg.
“In our culture, as a woman, you don’t say no to a man. Sex is not open for discussion,” she says.
“So they think they can do as they like.
“In a place like Orange Farm, where most people are unemployed, and the women have to go looking for work far away, often the children are left at home in the care of men, or strangers.
“They are vulnerable. In one case a little girl was being given food in return for sex, and she didn’t want to go home empty-handed to her mother, who had Aids and was sick. ”
A “culture of violence” has also been a dominant feature of South African society for decades, say sociologists, and it has spawned attitudes which are tolerant of sexual violence.
South Africa’s Deputy President Jacob Zuma blames apartheid for “sowing the seeds for the breakdown of the institution of the family.”
He believes that the molestation of children and infants today is a symptom of this degeneration.
Apartheid HAS left a damaged society in its wake, but the criminal justice system is also failing women and children in South Africa.
Out of the 24,892 rapes reported last year, only 1,797 resulted in successful convictions.
To its credit the government, and South African society, is responding to the scourge.
The justice system has prioritised sexual offences with a review of the law and stiffer sentences.
Police officers are being trained to care for rape survivors.
Many private hospitals now offer specialized rape care and counselling, and insurance companies have introduced policies for rape survivors to enable them to afford expensive anti-retroviral drug treatment to reduce the risk of contracting HIV and Aids.