JOHANNESBURG — Every 26 seconds in South Africa, a woman gets raped. It was my turn last Thursday night."
With those chilling words, freelance journalist Charlene Smith began a two-page newspaper account of her own brutal experience in the reputed rape capital of the world.
Ms. Smith's courageous story a year ago almost single-handedly put sex crimes on the agenda in crime-hardened South Africa.
She not only moved people with the story of her rape - and her dismal treatment afterward - but went on to lead public protests, counsel rape survivors in her home, and dispense advice to everyone from victims to prosecutors and foreign government officials.
Today, she can be credited for heightened political awareness, some tentative improvements in the justice system - 22 new, first-of-a-kind rape courts, and new medical research initiatives.
"Hardly any discussion on rape in South Africa takes place without some mention of Smith," the Mail and Guardian newspaper wrote in trumpeting their writer as Person of the Year. "Unwittingly, she has become the national representative of rape survivors. "The country's perception of rape ... has changed because Smith decided to tell her story."
South Africa's disturbing rape statistics were rarely discussed before Smith thrust the issue under the spotlight in April 1999. Now it is a well-known fact that some 52,000 women report a rape each year in South Africa. Police officials estimate that only 1 in every 36 victims here actually reports the crime, suggesting the real number of victims could be in excess of 1 million.
Women like Smith - urban, white, educated women who are attacked by strangers - are likely to take their cases to police. But the more common scenario is that of a poor, black township woman who is raped by someone she knows and does not report the case to authorities.
There are countless men in the countryside who still believe the myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. Gang rape is shockingly common.
Though some dispute the "rape capital" tag that has often been attached to South Africa, even the hard numbers collected by Interpol show that the problem is bigger here than almost anywhere else in the world. In the United States, for instance, 36.1 women were raped per 100,000 people in 1996. In Britain the number was as low as 8.7. Here, the rate was 119.5 rapes per 100,000 people, and there are reports that it has soared higher in recent years
"This has got to stop," Smith told a young police constable who drove her to a health clinic the night that she was raped.
Right then, she decided to "turn this evil into good." There was only one way she knew of to achieve that: write about it.
Smith sat down to write the piece just one day after she was attacked by a stranger in her sunny Johannesburg home.
She spent four agonizing days at her computer as she recounted every terrifying detail. The knife. The filthy threats. The masking tape he used to bind her hands, her mouth, her eyes.
"I wanted to be very clear about what happens during a rape," she explains today, a year after her story was first published in the national Mail and Guardian newspaper. "I didn't want to gloss it over. I wanted to change things."
The police warned Smith that a story could enrage the rapist, who had escaped with her keys and was issuing threats by phone. Already a well-known political and economic-affairs reporter in South Africa, Smith asked her children (a 13-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter) for permission to tell the story of her rape. She assured them it would be a "seven-day wonder."
She was wrong. Her answering machine fielded up to 200 phone calls a day in the weeks that followed publication, and today, she takes 40 calls daily from people who seek her views on the issues around rape - from traumatized victims and curious psychologists to prosecutors, police, politicians, pharmaceutical companies, and even foreign-government officials.
The issue consumes her life. When Smith speaks of sexual violence and HIV in an interview, she passionately spews out facts in such rapid succession that she herself loses the line of thought. She can barely catch her breath.
Smith has taken rape survivors into her own home, sometimes sleeping in her son's room in order to make room for women who seek out her comfort. She takes them to doctors, to counselors, to police. She hosts a lunch once a month for rape survivors - and she insists they are survivors,not victims - to provide an informal support network.
And over the past year she has written dozens of stories to expose low conviction rates, incompetent policing, and poor prosecutors. She points out that only 7 percent of reported rape cases ever make it to a court. Some women withdraw charges because they say the investigations are shams: Officers lost all but one answering-machine tape that Smith had saved of her rapist issuing threats.
But partly in response to the publicity, South Africa is now setting up 20 specialized "rape courts" across the country - the first such initiative in the world. Canada is helping to fund the program; the US Department of Justice and the FBI are training prosecutors and investigators in how to deal with the cases.
Smith also urged the South African Medical Association to sensitize doctors, and the group is putting together a "rape protocol." The Johannesburg district surgeon's office, which Smith criticized as cold and uncaring, is being revamped. She has advised police departments on how to better train their officers to deal with rape survivors.
Her biggest aim, however, has been to press for free access to drugs that could minimize a rape survivor's chances of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. She has condemned the government in print for failing to provide the preventive medicine, organized public demonstrations, and helped launch a petition that collected 600,000 signatures - the largest in the history of the country. Now two pharmaceutical companies have announced two $100-million studies into the availability and effect of anti-HIV drugs on rape survivors.
Following the negative coverage Smith gave the private Netcare hospital group, it has opened five rape clinics and provides HIV-treatment starter packs to rape survivors.
"It was provoked by my article and me fighting. It's a direct consequence," says Smith.
She is a crusader, and is unabashed. She rubs some people the wrong way. Smith has taken such ownership of the rape issue that many women's activists and government officials have come to resent her.
"No comment," the director of one group said this week when asked to speak about Smith. "I don't have anything nice to say."
Some have tired of the relentless stories she writes on her own case - the arrest of her attacker, her breakdown before testifying in court, her poor prosecution team, and just last week, her victorious day in court. Her rapist was sentenced to 15 years.
Not even Smith's critics deny her personal bravery and her achievements on the national scene. And it seems she is not finished yet. "I think I have at least two years left of really hard work," she says. "Adversity can be an opportunity.... We have the worst rape statistics in the world. But we can also develop ground-breaking solutions.
"We did it with apartheid, she adds. "We can do it again with the problems of rape and HIV."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society