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Rise in Rapes of Children Outrages South Africans

Crime: A gang assault on a 9-month-old is only one in a recent slew of attacks. Activists say the country's justice system is failing its young.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A recent surge in rapes of children and even babies has sparked national outrage here, as rights activists, medical professionals and ordinary South Africans accuse the government of not doing enough to stem the tide of sexual abuse.

According to police statistics, almost 32,000 cases of rape and attempted rape of children were reported from January 2000 to June this year. At least a dozen recent high-profile cases, including the gang rape of a 9-month-old girl in Northern Cape province last week, have stirred disgust and shock nationwide.

South Africa has the world's highest incidence of rape, with an estimated 58 child rapes a day and the rape of a woman every 26 seconds, according to statistics gathered by rights groups. But activists say the recent flurry of attacks points to an increasingly troubling moral disintegration among South Africans, and many are calling for reinstatement of the death penalty for child rape.

"It seems to be getting worse," said Glenys van Halter, vice president of South Africa Stop Child Abuse, a nongovernmental organization. "The children are getting younger, and the men are getting more callous about it."

Six men, between 24 and 66 years old, have been charged with the rape and indecent assault of the 9-month-old, who is hospitalized in serious condition and receiving treatment for possible exposure to HIV. The girl's 16-year-old mother had reportedly gone to buy food and left her in the care of another person when the crime occurred.

When the men appeared in court Monday, about 3,000 protesters demonstrated outside demanding the death penalty for the accused.

Days before the infant was attacked, a 3-year-old girl was raped, allegedly by her grandfather, and a 14-month-old was reportedly assaulted by two uncles. Child welfare activists say that most attacks against children are committed by male relatives and that a significant number of incidents go unreported.

In 1998, the South African National Council for Child and Family Welfare reported that five children were abused every hour and that child rape had increased by 74% since 1994. Since 1998, the figure for sexually abused children has risen 16%, according to the council.

"It's a statement on society," said Lourens Schlebusch, a psychology professor at the University of Natal in KwaZulu-Natal province. "In a way, there is a moral atrophy. We have now reached a stage where there is so much violence around us, and abnormal behavior, that it has almost become the norm."

Others say widespread poverty, unemployment and alcoholism are fueling the increase in child abuse.

"When these men fail within their environment, they tend to see it as a personal failing," Schlebusch said. "This leads to a feeling of powerlessness, frustration and aggression, and then the need for a target. . . . A perfect target is a woman. Even more, a defenseless little baby."

Exacerbating the problem is the myth in some communities that sex with a virgin will protect one from contracting AIDS. With one in nine of the country's citizens living with AIDS or HIV, victims of sexual abuse face being infected with the virus on top of their ordeal.

"Forced sex is one of the biggest reasons for causing AIDS," said Miranda Friedmann, director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse, a Johannesburg-based organization.

The government has come under intense criticism for its response to the problem of sexual abuse. While South Africa's liberal constitution seeks to protect children, the justice system seems to fail them, Friedmann said.

According to her group's statistics, there were 65,000 cases of child abuse last year but only 1,700 successful convictions.

The minimum prison term for the rape of a child is life, but judges are allowed to use their discretion in handing down a sentence.

One judge recently drew widespread criticism after sentencing a father who raped his 14-year-old daughter to seven years in prison. The judge argued, among other things, that the man was a first-time offender, that he was no danger to society and that his daughter would probably recover.

"That's the kind of thing that needs to change," said Kelly Hatfield, director of a Johannesburg-based group called People Opposing Women Abuse.

Paul Setsetse, a spokesman for South Africa's Justice Ministry, said that since 1994, the government has taken several initiatives to strengthen the law to protect victims, including training for judicial officers and the establishment of courts specifically for sexual offenders.

But many here feel the initiatives fall short. Activists are calling for more funding for nongovernmental organizations dealing with women's and children's issues. They also want the government to launch a national campaign, as large as the one against HIV/AIDS, to address the growing child rape problem.

One angry mother, touched by the plight of the 9-month-old, has started an e-mail campaign to focus attention on the problem of child abuse and encourage people to petition the government to address the issue.

Heather MacKay, a single working mother of one, told the local press that her motive is "to jam the president's e-mail and embarrass . . . the authorities, because somebody's not doing enough."

MacKay's campaign has elicited scores of responses, and angry calls have flooded local radio stations.

Setsetse said the government is aware of the outcry and is committed to doing all it can to ensure that child rapists are brought to justice.

"There can be no justification for committing such a heinous crime against a minor," Setsetse said. "The law must send a message that once you are caught, you must be dealt with."

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