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Tuesday, 11 December, 2001, 12:13 GMT
Baby rapes shock South Africa
Protest against the abuse of women and children
South Africans are left revolted and bewildered
Barnaby Phillips

Two men are due to appear at a court in Johannesburg on Tuesday, accused of raping a five-month-old girl who was discovered covered in blood and in tears.

It is the latest in a series of rapes of baby girls - some of them involving children less than one year-old, which has left South Africans reeling with horror.

Every day the newspapers bring awful revelations: a nine-month-old girl gang-raped by six men; an eight-month-old raped and left by the roadside.


I don't know how to take my anger out. I don't know why he did this

Mother of abused child

Outside the central Johannesburg magistrates' court, 200 demonstrators gathered carrying banners with slogans like "child rapists are not human".

Yet many protesters seem unable to understand why the rapes are happening.

"I don't have an answer, it's inhuman, it's inhuman," one told me.

Rape statistics from South Africa are so shocking as to be almost unbelievable - women's rights activists say one South African is raped every 26 seconds.

It is the young who are particularly vulnerable, with the police saying that more teenagers are raped than any other age group.

But even in a country numbed to horrific events, these cases are bewildering to South Africans, and making them question where their society is heading.

Unearthing truth

It is hardly believable - but some think that this is not new, only that a horrible truth is finally being acknowledged

Alexandria
Township youngsters are among the most vulnerable

"Actually it's not a new phenomenon, it's been something that you hide, you regard it as an embarrassment within the family. But now people have started to talk, they've decided that they've had enough," a woman protester told me.

A typical story reveals the horror.

On a poor Johannesburg estate, a family of eight sleep in one dirty bedroom.

Last week a neighbour seized the nine year old daughter, showed her pornographic magazines and then raped and indecently assaulted her. He gave her a few coins, and said sorry.

The little girl needed extensive surgery - her mother and father are inconsolable.

"I'm very angry, I'm very angry, I don't know how to take my anger out. I don't know why he did this, he used to come here and play with my children..." said the mother.

The father said he wanted to hunt down the rapists.

"How many parents' hearts must be broken?"

He is not alone in his rage.

Last weekend in Soweto a suspected child rapist was stoned to death.

The government is appealing for calm.

Myths

It is also trying to dispel a widespread rumour - that having sex with a virgin cures Aids.

Traditional healers, or witchdoctors, are blamed for spreading this idea, and encouraging child rape.

A sociologist, Lisa Vetton, draws a parallel with Europe, when child prostitution was rampant

"At that time venereal disease like Aids today was incurable. If you had gonorrhea or syphilis you were going to die. And exactly the same myth emerged, that sex with a virgin is going to cure you - so it seems like a very old response whenever sex and death are combined. Suddenly women - girls - get attributed with magical healing powers".


We must re-educate and empower men

Politician Nomvula Mokanyane

Some demonstrators are calling for longer sentences, even castration. Others are more considered.

Local politician Nomvula Mokanyane says that under apartheid, African men were stripped of power and prestige. Now they take their revenge on women, and on tiny children.

"We must re-educate and empower men. There are those who are sick who need to be re-educated. My worry is that men's power is threatened so they use their sexual organ to inflict pain on women."

South Africa's history, its poverty and the Aids pandemic all give insights into how some men behave.

But the rape of tiny children leaves people as mystified here as they would be in any other part of the world.

There is revulsion, but there is also bewilderment.

See also:

13 Oct 99 | Africa
Fighting back against rape
27 Nov 00 | Africa
SA: Standing up to rapists
27 Mar 01 | Africa
Sex threat to SA students
10 Jan 01 | Africa
Aids threat to SA education
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