New scrutiny of South Africa's high rate of child rape

Activists say the justice system is lax. Officials say more people are reporting.

Two weeks ago, Heather McKay heard a radio report about the brutal gang rape of an infant in South Africa's Northern Cape Province by six men, one of whom was the baby's great-grandfather. Shocked, the suburban mother vowed that this time she would do something.

"I can imagine very well what that baby must have gone through, for my daughter is about the same age," Dr. McKay wrote in an e-mail that has reached the highest levels of the South African government and been widely reported on in the South African press. "In my office, I cried for two hours. And then I got angry. Angry enough to do something, angry enough to want my voice heard."

Dr. McKay's eloquent e-mail and the details of the gruesome case have sparked furor over South Africa's growing epidemic of sexual violence against children. More than 1,000 demonstrators gathered at the courthouse in Kimberley when the six men had their initial court appearance. Newspapers, radios, and activists are taking up the issue.

Top politicians have pledged to do more to combat the problem and bring rapists to justice, but tackling child rape may prove to be difficult in a country where violence against women and children is endemic.

According to the South African police, there have been some 32,000 reports of rape and sexual assault against children since January 2000. Many more go unreported. Most shocking to many is the wave of very young children who have become the victims of sexual violence.

Statistics from the South African Police Service and nonprofits indicated that crimes against children under 18 have increased by more than 60 percent since 1994, the year South African held its first independent elections. But why there has been such a surge remains unclear.

Some blame the increase in rapes on the widespread myth that sleeping with a virgin cures AIDS. The wife of one man accused in that case is believed to have recently died of AIDS, and the baby has been tested for the virus. Others say the epidemic of violence against women is a legacy of apartheid, which created a culture of violence.

The absence of empirical evidence makes tackling the issue difficult, activists say.

"In terms of prevention, the single biggest problem we have is lack of information," says Lisa Vetten, head of the gender unit at the Johannesburg-based Center for Violence and Reconciliation. "We need to understand the circumstances that promote rape, as well as trying to alter the structures and systems that lead to it."

Senior Superintendent Anneke Pienaar, national commander of the Family Violence, Child Protection, and Sexual Offense Unit, however, offers a different explanation. The apparent increase in rape is due in part to the fact that more women and families are actually reporting incidences of rape, which constitutes a victory on the part of the police and government, she says.

Under apartheid, many South Africans felt they had little recourse under the law. Now, she believes, they are coming forward because they believe there is a chance for justice.

"It's more in the open now," says Ms. Piennaar. "The willingness or preparedness of people to speak out and report it - that's the main thing. There's a positive side to the increase in statistics."

But child-welfare and women's organizations say the South African justice system fails to treat rape seriously. Only a handful of rapists in South Africa are actually tried, they say, and those who are convicted are generally handed light sentences.

In cases of child rape, groups also say the system often adds to the trauma of rape survivors by granting bail to perpetrators, allowing them to return to the neighborhoods of their victims, and forcing victims to repeatedly retell their stories to police, welfare workers, and court officials.

"We need a more efficient justice system," says Kelly Hatfield, director of People Opposed to Women Abuse. "It's no good saying you're going to have life sentences for rapists if the government doesn't follow up on that."

The South African government has made some recent efforts to curb the epidemic of child rape. Police have held hundreds of information sessions in high-rape areas and created a new prosecutorial branch specializing in cases of violence against women and children.

Last year, the Justice Department also implemented a minimum life sentence for rapists of children under 16. It says the new law has led to an increase in the number of rapists receiving high sentences.

But the regulations are not binding, and child abuse advocates say that many magistrates fail to take sexual abuse seriously.

In one highly publicized case recently, the state appealed to a higher court in an attempt to increase theseven-year sentence handed down by a magistrate to a man for raping his teenage daughter. The original judge had rejected the suggested minimum sentence on the grounds that it was a "once off" incident, that he did not pose a threat to society at large, and because it was "not one of the worst cases of rape."

The Justice Department says the case shows the government is taking seriously its promise to bring rapists to justice. Between January and September of this year, 69 rapists were sentenced to life - a statistic the government says indicates progress and child welfare groups say is appallingly low.

Still, many activists say with enough outrage and enough people like Dr. McKay, much can be done.

"I have a lot of hope. One thing about South Africa is that it's an activist nation," said Ms. Hatfield. "If we can bring down apartheid, we can bring down violence against women."

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