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A New Strategy to Fight Rapists

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A South African inventor's device snares the attacker with hooks. Some activists call it regressive and say it will result in more killings.

September 01, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A medieval device built on hatred of men? Or a cheap, easy-to-use invention that could free millions of South African women from fear of rape, in a country with the worst sexual assault record on Earth?

Dubbed the "rape trap," trademarked Rapex, the condom-like device bristling with internal hooks designed to snare rapists has reignited controversy over the nation's alarming rape rate.

Some say the inventor, Sonette Ehlers, deserves a medal; others, that she needs help.

The device, which is worn inside a woman's body, hooks onto a rapist during penetration. It must be surgically removed.

Ehlers, a former medical technician, said the rape trap would be so painful for a rapist that it would disable him immediately, enabling his victim to escape. She insisted it would cause no long-term physical damage to the assailant, and could not accidentally injure the woman.

Some women's activists call the device regressive, putting the onus on individual women to address a societal, male problem. Even Charlene Smith, an outspoken journalist and anti-rape campaigner, said the device "goes back to the concept of chastity belts" and predicted it would incite injured rapists to kill their victims.

"You will get a higher rate of women being killed," Smith said. "We don't need these nut-case devices by people hoping to make a lot of money out of other women's fear."

But Ehlers contends that South Africa's rape problem is so severe that women cannot just wait for male attitudes to improve with education. She said her company had received many inquiries from around the world in recent months. Though the device was officially unveiled to the public Wednesday in South Africa's Western Cape, it won't be available to consumers until next year at the earliest.

"I don't hate men. I love men. I have not got revenge in mind. All I am doing is giving women their power back," Ehlers said in an interview. "I don't even hate rapists. But I hate the deed with a passion."

Ehlers foresees women inserting the device as a vital part of a daily security routine that has come to include switching on the electric fence around the family home and activating the house alarm each night.

South Africa has the highest per capita rate of reported rapes in the world -- 119 per 100,000 people, according to the United Naitons. The rate in the United States is 30 per 100,000. Analysts and women's advocacy groups argue that if South Africa's total included unreported rapes it could be five to nine times higher.

Ehlers sees her invention as particularly valuable for low income black women, whom she says are more vulnerable to rape than middle-income South Africans because they often walk long distances through unsafe areas going to and from work.

The single-use disposable device would sell for about 15 cents and Ehlers plans to market it in packets of 10 at major supermarkets.

She said a majority of the 2,000 South African women her firm had surveyed said they were willing to use the device.

Ehlers said she was inspired to design the device after meeting a young rape victim in a hospital in 1969, who told her, "If only I had teeth down there."

Ehlers said she kept the memory, struggling to overcome engineering problems to develop the device, which is soft "like a jelly baby," a British candy.

Ehlers says production will probably begin in Asia because of lower manufacturing costs.

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