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Tuesday, October 5, 1999 Published at 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK

World: Africa

Fighting back against rape

South African Journalist Charlene Smith is using her own experience of rape to fight for the rights of thousands of women assaulted each year. She is campaigning to raise awareness of the impact of rape and is now a well-known figure in the South African media. This is her personal account of how she refused to be seen as just another victim.

On 1 April this year I was raped in my home by a knife-wielding man.

As a political journalist I had written of our fine post-apartheid constitution and the greater rights it gave women and children.

But as I waited at the seedy, cold and dirty offices of the district medical examiner, and had to fight for anti-retroviral drugs at private clinics to reduce my risk of HIV-infection, I realised I had written lies.

The fine words of politicians do not always translate into a better life for their people.

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There was a child who had been raped ahead of me at the district surgeon's office.

She was no more than about 10, her parents were not with her, only a male police officer.

There was no-one to comfort her, to hear her fears.

I was enraged. If I was anxious in these disgraceful surroundings, unacknowledged, just another statistic, how did she feel?

I was an adult with coping skills, a child has none.

Speaking out

Theoretically journalists stand aloof from the stories they write. No, we should not carry Kleenex with our laptop, we cannot overtly take sides, but we need to recognise that sometimes our words can heal and bring positive change.

It is impossible to write about human tragedy and to remain aloof. If we do, the article lacks substance and power.

As a person who had been raped I had a unique insight into one of the most serious crimes in the world - criminal not only because of what the rapist does, but in the way society treats us, whether police officers, doctors or ordinary folk.

As a journalist who covered township conflict in South Africa through the 1980s and 1990s I learned that the most powerful stories about the cruelty of apartheid were those that spoke of the experiences of individuals.

I had to speak out for the child ahead of me, who was mute and terrified.

Retroviral campaigning

South Africa has the fastest accelerating rate of HIV in the world with 1,800 infections each day.

This means that every woman, child and man raped - only last week I was told of a man held down by hi-jackers while a woman raped him - is in danger from HIV infection.

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The South African Government has been offered anti-retrovirals at prices 70% less than anywhere else in the world to stop mother to child transmission.

We could save 60% of our babies born to infected mothers and those same drugs could also stop those raped from becoming infected - but the government has refused the offer.

This means we will see millions dying in the next few years of Aids-related illnesses costing the health sector billions of rands.

It's refusal also means that only the rich and the middle class, those who can afford to pay for the drugs have a chance to have a life after being raped.

Within hours of being raped I began campaigning for the rights of those who are raped and are in danger of HIV infection.

Changing things

The initial article I wrote in South Africa and those that followed have gone around the world and changed attitudes to rape counselling, medical care and police investigation techniques from San Diego to Britain, South Africa to Namibia, Singapore to Uganda.

It is also changing the way journalists report on violence, and the way politicians, doctors, judges and police officers consider it.

How dare politicians talk about the rights of women, and do nothing to stop the worst war in Africa - that against women and children?

I meet with many women and children who have been raped and abused.

Among the many cases of women, and their partners, who have contracted HIV after the woman was raped, were two that particularly saddened me.

A 13-year-old raped by a person who thought he could lose his HIV status by raping a virgin died a fortnight ago. It took her only a year to die. He is still alive, still free.

The other was a 22-year-old who contracted HIV after being gang-raped when she was 16. She died in May.

In South Africa we have begun working hard - citizens, doctors, judges and police officers to combat sexual violence and the spead of HIV; but women, children and men raped anywhere in the world are at risk from HIV infection - why is this issue not on the agenda elsewhere in the world?

Are the lives of those raped so meaningless?

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