Children at risk

Some people believe that the increasing incidence of child rape may be linked to myths about Aids.

AS HE SENTENCED Xolani Dlamini to life imprisonment for the rape of a 12-year-old girl in the Natal High Court last year, Judge Kenneth Mthiyane commented, "You may have done this in the stupid belief that after sexual intercourse with a virgin you may be cured of HIV or Aids." (Mail & Guardian, August 18, 1999).

According to figures provided by minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete on March 13 8,683 children under 18 were raped in the first six months of 1999. The number of rape cases dealt with by child protection units more than doubled from 7,559 in 1994 to 15,732 in 1998.

There are many rumours that the increase in reports of child rape and the myth of the virgin cure for Aids are directly connected, but is it true? In an endeavour to find out I canvassed opinion from social workers, police and others working in the child protection field.

"We hear of this rumour, but we can never say in a particular case that it was definitely because of Aids that they did this", says Captain Amanda van Niekerk of the SAPS child protection unit in Bellville. "The rumour sometimes comes up on arrest, in about one in 20 cases. In most of these cases the perpetrator comes from rural areas, especially in the Eastern Cape. But we can never say for sure it was a reason."

Stephanie Shutte, a counsellor for Childline in the Western Cape, thinks that the increase in child-rape is directly related to the way HIV and Aids is understood in the community. "The belief is that the cleanliness and pureness of the child will strip the virus away. Women in the community are telling us that both girls and boys are being raped because of this belief," she says.

According to Deborah Valeka, who works with Life Line in Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats, the idea predates Aids. It has often been believed that if you sleep with a virgin or someone younger than yourself this will cure sexually transmitted diseases, she says. "Now it is just being applied to Aids too. I don't know how much this myth is contributing to the rape of more children, because obviously we don't often get to speak to the perpetrators, but many more people seem to have Aids now than had other sexually transmitted diseases in the past."

Valeka thinks unemployment and opportunity are just as likely a cause. "Children are alone at home while the mothers work and the men have nothing to do," she explains. "Squatter camps are a particularly dangerous environment for children.

Gaby Cloete of Childline in Wynberg agrees. "We certainly hear of the myth all the time," she says. "But the increasing rate of rape of children and the decreasing age of victims, is also related to other factors. Young children are easier targets and far more vulnerable. Increasingly, older children are better educated and dare to run away or fight back. The very young are sitting targets."

The longest reply to my inquiry came from the director of Childline, Joan van Niekerk. Her testimony says more than arguments about or recitation of official statistics can ever do:

"It is difficult to give any information on the extent of the myth that to have sex with a virgin will cure Aids," she writes, "but we are certainly seeing young children at Childline who appear to have been the victims of it. They have been abused by adults and youths who are HIV-positive and ordinarily would not be sexually attracted to or active with children.

"However as rape perpetrators are often not arrested and brought before the court and since, when they are caught and brought before the court, they seldom acknowledge the offence it is difficult to know and understand the motivation that lies behind the crime. Sometimes the motivation is not a simple one but a complex mix of myths and motivations. For example - 'I'm HIV positive and angry - I want to take revenge and infect as many others as possible.'

"Some of the children have been as young as two years old. The younger the child the more likely there is to be more serious physical damage and the more likely the open wound exposure to semen. We know of township youths who specifically target virgin girls and separate them physically from their peer groups - for instance, when walking home from school - and gang rape them. These girls are intimidated and rarely report the rape because of their fear of reprisal on either themselves or their family. Sometimes they are reluctant even to use Childline's confidential services. We deal with children and families on a daily basis who are intimidated by offenders and their families and peers. Protection especially in informal housing areas is virtually impossible and we know of families whose lives are totally disrupted by the need to move from place to place in an effort to protect themselves.

"The suffering of the families of children who are HIV-infected as a result of sexual abuse is immense - they not only have the sexual assault on their child to contend with but also the child's potential illness. Many children do not disclose the abuse spontaneously because of fear or shame and so the abuse may only be discovered when the child's health has already begun to decline or when the child has an obvious sexually transmitted disease - this often goes hand-in-hand with HIV/Aids.

"We are working with children as young as two years who have HIV/Aids right through to teenagers. Most of these children are from poor families who cannot afford drug treatment even if the sexual assault is picked up immediately by the child's caretaker. We also often struggle with pathetic responses from those who should be promptly responsive to sexual assault on children. Children and caretakers may be turned away from police stations when they go to report sexual assault, this then limits the access that they have to medical examination and medical services.

"Many families are unaware of, or cannot afford, the kind of diet or medical treatment that would help maintain the infected child's health at optimal levels for as long as possible. Many of the children we deal with who are infected with HIV live in poor communities with poor nutrition and sanitation and therefore experience repeated opportunistic infections which rapidly cause overall deterioration of the child's health.

"It is difficult to say where the myth about sex with a virgin will cure Aids came from - some believe that it was from traditional healers. What we do know is that it causes enormous suffering to children who become the victims of this misinformation and we believe the myth should be actively targeted in the media and all HIV/Aids education programmes. When Childline is engaged on educational programmes in KwaZulu-Natal with community, school and other groups, the myth is something we discuss. I also believe that it should be actively targeted during child protection week.

"For myself and our Childline staff and, I am sure, many others who work in this field, this is one of the most distressing aspects of child sexual abuse that we have to deal with."

Social workers in the field believe that under-reporting of rape in general is common, both because of the difficulties of securing a conviction in court and the shame of the victim, and this is just as true of children. The current narrow definition of rape in South African excludes rape of men and boys, oral penetration and penetration with objects. The Law Commission is currently working on reform to the law and Joan van Niekerk heads the committee working on widening the definition of rape. The theme of this year's national child protection week was "hearing the voices of children"; never was it more necessary.

Focus 18 June 2000. Jean Redpath is a writer and researcher.