An Epidemic Of Rape In South Africa

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First in a two-part report.

Part 2 Of this Report

Inside a tiny, one-room shack in South Africa's sprawling Soweto Township, an 8-year-old girl tells her playmates she wants to be a doctor. This little girl has met many doctors. Two years ago, when she was 6, she was abducted while playing in the street near her house and raped repeatedly for two days.

Her mother, Yvonne, tells me she alerted the police and they launched a search. But when they failed to find the child that day, they halted their efforts until the next morning.

At 3 a.m., Yvonne says, she heard the knock on the door. When she opened it, she saw her child. There was blood all over the child's legs.

She took her straight to the hospital. The child was treated, but her injuries were severe and required follow-up surgery — doctors told Yvonne the rape tears had to heal before the girl's womb could be repaired. In the two years since the abduction, Yvonne and her daughter have made many trips to the hospital.

As for the rapist, it was weeks before the police captured him, even though the young victim had provided information about where he lived. When he was finally found, police learned he was also wanted for the attempted rape of a 3-month-old. He managed to escape, but was recaptured two months later. He was later found hanging in his cell — dead, apparently by suicide.

Tens Of Thousands Raped, Many Unreported

Despite the gruesomeness of the case, it got only a small mention in one black-oriented newspaper. South Africans have become numb to the statistics: Tens of thousands of women are raped each year, with nearly half of the victims under the age of 18, according to studies. Many more rapes go unreported.

The vast majority of rapes also go unpunished, and it is difficult to win justice for rape victims, says Romi Sigsworth with the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. She blames societal attitudes toward women, as well as poor reporting by police and medical professionals — which she describes as "horrendously done."

With the help of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Center, Sigsworth studied police records of almost 12,000 rape cases for one year in the province that includes Johannesburg. She said the records included the doctor's assessment of the victim's condition.

"Often, the conclusion would be 'alleged rape,'" she says. "That's not a medical conclusion." In one instance, Sigsworth says, she found several reports filed by a doctor who had "filled out the height and weight of all women the same. So every woman was 162 centimeters tall and weighed 65 kilograms."

Sigsworth says she and others are exploring the roots of such dismissive attitudes. But some questions beg to be answered.

"Is it culturally based?" she asks. "Is it part of South Africa's violent past — that you feel a sense of violent entitlement to somebody? Is it the very strong patriarchal culture that is very much entrenched in South Africa? Is it a combination of all those things?"

Little Justice For Victims

Whatever the answers, Sigsworth says, the problem costs victims their rights. "It's definitely an attitude problem," she says. "Compounded disbelief means the girls themselves end up withdrawing the case."

And even if the case isn't withdrawn, she says very few end up in convictions — often because of shoddy police work.

"Six percent of the cases that were reported to police in our study ended in convictions," she says. "Half of them, 55 percent, made it past the police investigation stage — and then the attrition happened very quickly from then onwards."

Cases wouldn't make it to trial, Sigsworth says. Or they would make it to trial, but end in acquittal or the conviction of a lesser crime.

It's been two years since Yvonne's daughter was raped. The girl has healed from her operations, but is so damaged physically she will never have children. And she may still be in harm's way.

The classmates that once played with her began instead to point. Seeking safety for her child, Yvonne sent her away to another province. There, the girl lives with her two siblings, the oldest of whom is head of the household — at age 14.

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