Angry S. Africans urge government to fight child rape

Attack on 9-month-old inspires demand for national crackdown

November 08, 2001|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - A recent surge in rapes of children and even babies has sparked national outrage here, as rights activists, medical professionals and ordinary South Africans accuse the government of not doing enough to stem the tide of sexual abuse.

According to police statistics, almost 32,000 cases of rape and attempted rape of children were reported from January 2000 to June this year. At least a dozen recent cases, including the gang rape of a 9-month-old girl in Northern Cape province last week, have stirred disgust and shock nationwide.

South Africa has the world's highest incidence of rape, with an estimated 58 child rapes a day and the rape of a woman every 26 seconds, according to statistics gathered by rights groups. But activists say the recent flurry of attacks points to an increasingly troubling moral disintegration among South Africans, and many are calling for reinstatement of the death penalty for child rape.

"It seems to be getting worse," said Glenys van Halter, vice president of South Africa Stop Child Abuse, a nongovernmental organization. "The children are getting younger, and the men are getting more callous about it."

Six men, between 24 and 66 years old, have been charged with the rape and indecent assault of the 9-month-old, who is in serious condition in a hospital and receiving treatment for possible exposure to HIV. The girl's 16-year-old mother had reportedly gone to buy food and left her in the care of another person when the crime occurred.

When the men appeared in court Monday, about 3,000 protesters demonstrated outside demanding the death penalty for the suspected attackers.

Days before the 9-month-old was attacked, a 3-year-old girl was raped, allegedly by her grandfather, and a 14-month-old was reportedly assaulted by two uncles. Child welfare activists say that most attacks against children are committed by male relatives and that a significant number go unreported.

In 1998, the South African National Council for Child and Family Welfare reported that five children were abused every hour and that child rape had increased by 74 percent since 1994. Since 1998, the figure for sexually abused children has risen 16 percent, according to the council.

"It's a statement on society," said Lourens Schlebusch, a psychology professor at the University of Natal in KwaZulu-Natal province. "In a way, there is a moral atrophy. We have now reached a stage where there is so much violence around us, and abnormal behavior, that it has almost become the norm."

Others say that widespread poverty, unemployment and alcoholism are fueling the increase in child abuse.

"When these men fail within their environment, they tend to see it as a personal failing," Schlebusch said. "This leads to a feeling of powerlessness, frustration and aggression, and then the need for a target. ... A perfect target is a woman. Even more, a defenseless little baby."

Exacerbating the problem is the widespread myth in some communities that sex with a virgin offers protection from contracting AIDS. With one in nine of the country's citizens living with AIDS or HIV, victims of sexual abuse face being infected with the virus on top of their ordeal.

"Forced sex is one of the biggest reasons for causing AIDS," said Miranda Friedmann, director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, a group in Johannesburg.

The government has come under intense criticism for its response to the problem of sexual abuse. While South Africa's liberal constitution seeks to protect children, the justice system seems to fail them, Friedmann said.

Her group says there were 65,000 cases of child abuse last year but only 1,700 convictions.

The minimum term for the rape of a child is life in prison, but judges are allowed to use their discretion when passing sentence.

One judge recently drew widespread criticism after sentencing a father who raped his 14-year-old daughter to seven years in prison. The judge argued, among other things, that the man was a first-time offender, that he was no danger to society and that his daughter would probably recover.

"That's the kind of thing that needs to change," said Kelly Hatfield, director of a Johannesburg-based group called People Opposing Women Abuse.

Paul Setsetse, a spokesman for South Africa's Justice Department, said that since 1994, the government has taken several initiatives to strengthen the law to protect victims, including special training for judicial officers and the establishment of courts specifically for sexual offenders.

But many here feel the initiatives fall short. Activists are calling for more funding for nongovernmental organizations dealing with women's and children's issues. They also want the government to launch a national campaign, as large as the one against HIV and AIDS, to address the growing child rape problem.

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