Treating Victims And Their Rapists In South Africa

Second in a two-part report.

Part 1 Of This Report

South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world. Many of those involved with treating victims and abusers say rape is not being given high priority by the police, the courts or the government.

Many rapists either are not getting caught or are getting light sentences, critics say. And many victims fail to press their cases because of the indifference they often face in hospitals and in the criminal justice system.

But a handful of programs are trying to make a difference.

'I Didn't Know That It Was Rape'

In Soweto, South Africa, nine boys, ages 14 to 19, sit around a table listening to a lecture. The session could easily pass for an after-school class — except each one of the boys has been convicted of rape.

Instead of sending them to jail, South Africa refers some juvenile offenders to programs like this one, run by a nongovernmental organization called the Teddy Bear Clinic.

The clinic is privately funded, and it's the only one of its kind working to rehabilitate young abusers as well as their victims. There are only three clinics in the region, but there are plans to expand to other locations around the country once the money has been raised.

Since the Teddy Bear Clinic started 24 years ago, the staff have worked with 565 sexual offender cases — a drop in the bucket in a nation that reports tens of thousands of rapes annually.

Social worker Daniel Radebe talks to the boys around the table about sex and appropriate responses to arousal. He wants them to understand that he appreciates the poor environment they come from. Many of the boys were raised without fathers, and many feel a sense of entitlement toward girls.

"Normally, this is accepted in the community," he says, "treating young girls badly." But Radebe tries to help them understand why this is wrong.

"These are young boys, and they always think that girls need to be submissive to them," Radebe says. He tries to break them of that thinking. "One of the things that is working with us is that we always encourage them to think before they act and take a sense of responsibility."

Learning Appropriate Responses

Radebe says many of these young men have never been taught appropriate responses to women.

"You ask them, 'How do you feel now?' when they see young girls wearing short skirts. You don't want them to castrate their own penis. You want them to castrate the act.

"You want the erection to be there," Radebe says, "but you want them to treat young girls as equal to them."

At the session, some of the young offenders say they didn't understand what rape was or that it was a crime.

"When I raped my cousin," one 14-year-old says, "I didn't know I was going to get AIDS, and I didn't know that it was rape."

'There's Just Not Adequate Parenting'

In the same complex that houses the Teddy Bear Clinic is a special sexual offenses court. Young boys lounge around an interior garden surrounded by small courtrooms. It looks like junior high school during a class break. But these boys are waiting for their cases to be called.

Some have gone more than once, only to have the case postponed — because the prosecution wasn't ready, the lawyer didn't show up or the judge was unavailable.

Dario Dosio, a judge at the court, says he thinks HIV/AIDS has played a large role in the increase in numbers of young offenders.

"Parents are dying as a result of the disease, and as a result, there's just not adequate parenting," Dosio says. Children don't form strong emotional attachments with their parents and go without discipline.

A Silent Epidemic

Rape is a worsening problem in South Africa — some call it a silent epidemic. The most recent police statistics show that 55,000 rapes were reported between 2005 and '06.

Police insist that the numbers are declining, but several nongovernmental organizations dispute this, arguing that only one in 20 rapes is reported. According to the most recent statistics of the nationally reported cases of rape, 40 percent were committed against children younger than 18.

"We do find also adults raping young children," Dosio says. He believes South Africa's economic troubles are partly to blame. "It unfortunately creates situations where adults are at home, they are unemployed and they are exposed to seeing young children."

A new sexual offenses act was passed in 2007 that widened the definition of rape beyond vaginal penetration and included the rape of boys. But many cases are still dismissed for lack of or botched evidence. The anti-poverty agency ActionAid reported that for every 25 men accused of rape in South Africa, 24 walk free. Dosio says more help is needed to deal with offenders.

"We do not have all the answers and the solutions, but we are working toward it. We really do need whatever assistance is available." It's not a lost cause, he says, but it is a cause crying out for justice.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.