South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world. And studies show that nearly half of those raped are adolescents. Critics say South Africa's 15-year-old democracy is having trouble curbing what they call the silent epidemic. Today, NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault has the first in a two- part series looking at what many see as a disease tearing at the fabric of this young society. One warning, this story does contain graphic descriptions.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER: The sounds of children playing in the streets of South Africa's sprawling black Soweto Township, children like this 8-year-old girl.

HANSEN: When I grow up I want to be a doctor.

HUNTER: From inside the tiny one-room shack where she once lived with her mother, I hear her telling her playmates she wants to be a doctor. As her story unfolds, I realize where this desire is coming from. Two years ago, when she was six, she was abducted from the street near her house where she was playing and repeatedly raped for two days.

YVONNE: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER: 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. Then...

YVONNE: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER: Yvonne says she heard the knock on the door around 3 AM, and when she opened it, she saw her child.

YVONNE: (Foreign language spoken)

HUNTER: She says there was blood all over the child's legs, and she took her straight to the hospital. The child was treated, but her injuries were severe and required follow-up surgery. But Yvonne says care for her daughter was haphazard. She made repeated trips to the hospital seeking the necessary care, but it took several visits before someone took the time to tell her the child needed to heal first from the rape tears before they could repair her womb.


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

Despite the gruesomeness of the case, it only got small mention at the time in one black-oriented newspaper. South Africans have become numbed by the statistic: tens of thousands of females are raped each year, with nearly half of the victims under the age of 18, according to studies. Many more rapes go unreported.

Romi Sigsworth is with the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. She says the vast majority of rapes go unpunished and it's difficult to win justice for rape victims. She blames societal attitudes towards women, as well as poor reporting by police and medical professionals, which she is...

ROMI SIGSWORTH: Horrendously done.

HUNTER: Sigsworth, with the help of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Center, 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.

SIGSWORTH: Often, the conclusion would be alleged rape. I'm mean, that's not a medical conclusion to find. We found a number, we presume it was the same doctor because it was at one of the police stations, and he filled out the height and weight of all the women the same. So every woman that he examined was 162 centimeters and 65 kgs.

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

SIGSWORTH: Is it culturally based? Is it kind of something - is it part of South Africa's violent past, that you feel a sense of violence entitlement to somebody? Is it the very strong patriarchal culture that is very much entrenched in South Africa? Is it a combination of all of those things?

HUNTER: Sigsworth says whatever the answers, the problem costs the victims their rights.

SIGSWORTH: It's basically an attitudinal problem. And I think often the compounded disbelief means that the girls themselves might end up withdrawing the case.

HUNTER: And if the case isn't withdrawn, she says very few end up with convictions, often because of shoddy police work.

SIGSWORTH: Six percent of the cases that were reported to the police in our study ended in convictions. Half of them, 55 percent, made it past the police investigation stage. And then the attrition happened very quickly from then onwards - cases not making it to trial, cases making it to trial but the accused was acquitted or he was convicted of a lesser crime, of indecent assault, or the - of assault, or something other than rape.


HUNTER: Meanwhile, it's been two years since the 6-year-old's rape. She's healed from her operations, but she's so damaged physically, she'll never have children and she may still be in harm's way. The children, where she went to school and who played with her in the streets all knew about her rape, kept pointing fingers at her. So her mother sent her to another province to live with two other children - the oldest of whom is the head of the household, she is only 14.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Johannesburg.

HANSEN: In part two, Charlayne reports on how South Africa is trying to deal with young rapists, and that's next Sunday on WEEKEND EDITION.

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