In South Africa, a brutal rape sparks unusual proposal

A controversial recommendation that arose in Limpopo Province would force men accused of rape to have an HIV test and charge them with attempted murder if they test positive.

Police escort the two men accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl at the magistrate's court in Bredasdorp, South Africa, 80 miles east of Cape Town, February 12, 2013.

The shocking rape and murder of a 17-year-old in South Africa has politicians and police searching for solutions. But a possible new policy in one province, proposing that rapists found to have the HIV virus be charged with murder, is going too far, say some analysts.

The young woman, Anene Booysens, was found in a construction site in Bredasdorp, about two hours southeast of Cape Town on Feb. 2. She had been gang-raped, viciously beaten, and disemboweled and died several hours later in a local hospital.

While South Africans are regularly confronted with violent killings – including that of Reeva Steenkamp, girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius – the sheer brutality of the attack on Ms. Booysens in a small town located in a picturesque countryside, has captured the nation’s attention. 

The attack comes on the heels of the heinous murder and gang-rape of a Indian student in New Delhi, which stirred headlines here as South Africans face their own high counts of incidences of sexual violence against women, including two other high profile gang-rapes last year. South African police statistics record more than 64,000 cases a year – more than seven an hour.

Within days of the Booysens rape, a full-force debate ensued over proposals to tackle South Africa’s brutal sexual violence.

A controversial recommendation that arose in Limpopo Province would force men accused of rape to have an HIV test and charge them with attempted murder if they test positive.

Police Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi, a local official of the national police force, says the proposal is allowable under existing law and necessary.

“We have seen there are a lot of repeat offenders in our province where they are continuing with these sexual attacks targeting women and children. Some of them might be carrying this virus and deliberating infecting these women,” says Mr. Malaudzi, arguing that the law that is already partly on the books, though rarely cited. 

Human rights and HIV activists have decried the proposal in Limpopo, a somewhat isolated province and not where Booysens was killed. 

“The practice further reinforces HIV related stigma, discrimination and prejudice,” says S'khumbuzo Maphumulo, an attorney for civil rights organization Section 27.

Malaudzi says that police were contemplating the new policy even before the attack on Booysens. He adds that police can only petition the courts to order an HIV test for men accused of rape and cannot carry out tests without court backing. 

“We feel that it is now proper for us to have this information in the proceedings,” says Malaudzi.

Mr. Maphumulo, however, worries that the practice would likely lead to further overall abuses, especially of those ignorant of their rights, by overzealous police.

“Peoples’ rights are likely to be violated left, right, and center since force – without any due process whatsoever – will in all probabilities be used to test suspects,” he says. Punitive laws adopted hastily often intend to deter crime but can end up stigmatizing and doing harm, says
Maphumulo, who also doubts whether the threat of tough laws will deter men who rape.

“Criminalization is based on unfounded fears as there is no evidence that it will stop offenders from transmitting HIV in future,” he says.

Malaudzi, the police official, acknowledged that he was unaware of cases where a rapist attempted to deliberately infect a victim with HIV. However, he maintains the measure is needed to protect women and children.

Maphumulo counters that if the criminalization of HIV were to go beyond men accused of rape, it could be women who face prosecution as they are often the first to learn they are HIV positive in their relationships.  Their boyfriends or husbands could then use this to claim the women infected them.

“Even though the arguments in favor of the approach are largely that the measures are meant to protect women and girls, there is a strong likelihood that women will carry the brunt,” he says. 

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