South Africa reels from Horror of Baby Rapes


Special to
USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston
The Black Business Journal

The baby rapes are said to be linked to a myth that sex with a virgin
will cure a man of AIDS. Just what sort of person rapes a baby girl?

JOHANNESBURG/Reuters - This is a question shocked South Africans are asking after a spate of baby rapes. All the victims are girls and the most recent attack, last weekend, was on a five-month-old. Anti-rape activists citing police statistics say a woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa -- giving it one of the world's highest rates of rape. With frightening levels of all violent crime it is often described as one of the most dangerous countries outside a war zone. The baby rapes are said to be linked to a myth that sex with a virgin will cure a man of AIDS. That has enraged the country and triggered calls by some for the government to declare a state of emergency over the rape crisis.

"We're shocked and devastated at the extent of moral decay in our society. This is a terrible indictment on our society," said Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ex-wife of former president Nelson Mandela, and head of the ruling African National Congress' (ANC) Women's League.

Since the rape of a baby girl was reported in November, civic groups have called for the restoration of the death penalty, outlawed in South Africa. Others want the culprits castrated. "I am opposed to the death penalty but I would like to see their balls cut off," one anti-rape activist told Reuters.

National outrage has grown to levels the government fears it may not be able to control. "One appreciates their anger but my fear is there'll come a point where the police will not be able to hold the public anger, and we are almost there," said Nomvula Mokonyane, a provincial government official.

The rise in child and baby rapes is a catalog of horrors.

In early November, a nine-month-old girl was raped by up to six men. Three days before, a three-year-old was raped, allegedly by her grandfather. In the same week, a 14-month-old was assaulted by her uncles. Later that month, an eight-month-old baby was kidnapped from her sleeping parents, raped and abandoned by the roadside in Cape Town.

Police say some 21,000 rapes of minors were reported in 2000, most of them committed by male relatives. Most of the victims live in poverty. During the first weekend of December at least a dozen rapes were reported to the police, several of them gang rapes.

"There's an increase of rapes over weekends and school holidays because parents tend to leave their children alone," police Superintendent Martin Aylward told Reuters. With one in nine South Africans living with HIV/AIDS, sexual assault can be a death sentence for the victim.

Opinions vary on whether baby rapes are a new phenomenon. According to Madikizela-Mandela, a former social worker, infant rapes were unheard of in the past. But other South Africans say the only difference today is that the crime is being reported. "I remember my 90-year-old grandmother talking about child rapes but back then women were too scared to talk about it. We've been hiding it for so long but now we've reached a point where people are saying 'no more'," said Faith Mazibuko, a senior ANC official. More than 50,000 rapes are reported to the police each year, but the figure heavily underestimates the truth.

The answer to the horrifying scourge, many experts including government officials say, can be found in the myth propagated by some sangomas or traditional healers that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Ironically, the country has launched a blistering campaign to counter ignorance about AIDS but rape activists said the myth seemed to be gaining ground. South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and sufferers are easy prey to so-called cures touted by sangomas.

"The myth has been around since the early 90s. Some sangomas would tell their clients that they needed to have sex with a virgin in order to get cured of the disease," said Kelly Hatfield, director of People Opposing Women Abuse.

Others cite a legacy of violence from more than four decades of apartheid, the brutal system of rule organized by the white minority that survived until 1994. "We come from a very violent background because of our historical circumstance. In those days of apartheid it was normal to kill. People still have hangovers," said Mbulelo Musi, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Development. Rape support groups have called for the death penalty, which was outlawed after apartheid. They cite lenient laws and argue that convictions of rapists are not applied consistently. The maximum sentence for rape is life.

Some within government seem to think current laws have been unable to stop the wave of crime. They would like to see the harshest sentences for rapists but stop short of supporting calls the death penalty. "Out of our own values...we said we don't want the death sentence. What then do we do to compensate for that?" the South African Press Association reported Deputy President Jacob Zuma as saying.

In November, the government launched its annual campaign for awareness about violence against women and children. The focus was to get people to break the silence and report all incidents. Musi said this year saw the greatest number of reports of abuse. "We have called a summit next year. We need to examine what is wrong with our society. What is it that makes us as South Africans behave as animals?" he said.
(Thursday, December 06, 2001)

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