The allegations were far from unusual: Physical and sexual abuse of young teenage girls. In South Africa, where sexual assault rates are among the world's highest, the news would normally surprise few.
But over the past month, ever since Oprah Winfrey says students at her new $40 million Leadership Academy for Girls reported that a dorm matron was sexually abusing a classmate, the response has been anything but typical.
Ms. Winfrey suspended the suspected staffer, put other school officials on leave, and brought in counselors to talk to students. Within weeks, police identified seven alleged victims, arrested 27-year-old Tiny Makopo and charged her with 13 counts of abuse.
"This has been one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating, experiences of my life," Winfrey said Monday in an emotional but forceful video address in which she detailed her response to the allegations.
It was a marked change from what children's advocates say they normally see after sexual abuse here: some combination of silence, inaction, and shame. And because of this, they hope that the alleged abuse at Winfrey's school – presented in US media this week as a "scandal" – will help bring attention to what observers call an epidemic of sexual abuse in this country.
"It's phenomenal," says Rachel Jewkes, a specialist on sexual violence with South Africa's Medical Research Council, of Winfrey's talk. "I think the message that is sent by this, that [sexual abuse] is utterly unacceptable, is a really powerful one. We never get a message that's so unequivocal about how these acts should be judged. Wouldn't it be wonderful if these acts would always be taken so seriously?"
Even with rape and sexual assault considered underreported crimes in South Africa, the numbers here are staggering: 54,926 reported rapes in 2006 for a country of 47 million, according to the South African Police Force. In the US, whose population is more than six times as large, there were less than double the number of reported rapes that same year – 92,455.
Sky-high sexual abuse rates
For girls, abuse often happens at school, studies show. The 2005 National Youth Victimization Survey, conducted by a team of academics, found that 23 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 had been threatened or harassed at school, and 24 percent had been sexually assaulted at school. In a 1998 health survey, which Dr. Jewkes helped conduct, more than half the women who said they were raped before they turned 15 identified the perpetrator as a teacher.
"It's not just these big, high-profile incidents; child sexual abuse is a significant problem, and it has been around for a long time," says Andy Dawes, research director of the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town. "[The Winfrey school case] can help put attention to services that children get.... The problem with some of these [media] events, is that there is only a short-time flurry of activity. It's about sustaining the response to this kind of events."
Fairouz Nagia-Luddy, the project coordinator for the domestic violence project of the Western Cape-based Gender Advocacy Programme, says that many girls never report sexual abuse because of cultural pressures.
"The problem is the silence around it," she says. Until Oprah, she says, few famous figures have addressed sexual abuse publicly. "It's important to create awareness at all levels," she says. "Role models coming up and speaking about it is one way of doing it."
Many girls are afraid to report encounters
Students abused by teachers are often loath to report the crimes for fear of retaliation, advocates say.
In addition to the problem of girls being afraid to report abuse, a 2001 Human Rights Watch report documented widespread incompetence when it came to following up on girls' complaints. The report found "a great deal of confusion over responsibility for resolving problems and repeatedly encountered breaks in the chain of communication between school officials, police, and prosecutors, with all actors shifting responsibility and sexually abused girls getting lost in the shuffle."
In a new study that Jewkes is working on, she says a close review of thousands of police rape files also shows consistent investigative lapses – investigators losing track of a victim because they never asked for her phone number or address, for instance.
"The patterns of failures of policing are incredible and they are repetitive," she says. "A lot of cases fall down because very basic things aren't done."
These won't be issues in the Leadership Academy case, Winfrey says.
"It is one of my goals in life to put child abusers, whether they be in my home, whether they be in my workplace, or, in this case, in the Academy, to put them where they belong," she said. "And that is behind bars."
Earlier this week Makopo appeared in the Sebokeng Magistrate's court south of Johannesburg and heard the charges against her – indecent assault, common assault, soliciting a minor to perform indecent acts, and verbal abuse. She told the court she intended to plead not guilty.
• Scott Baldauf contributed to this report.