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April 2002

Feature

 


The 'virgin myth' and child rape in South Africa

MRC News Release


In recent months South Africans recoiled in horror as the drama of several brutal child rape cases unfolded. Many believe that the myth that sex with a virgin cleanses a man of HIV/AIDS is behind these atrocities. Not so, says Dr Rachel Jewkes, Director of the MRC's Gender and Health Research Group. 

Dr Jewkes and two of her collaborators, Dr Lorna Martin (Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, University of Cape Town) and Ms Loveday Penn-Kekana (Centre for Health Policy, University of the Witwatersrand) believe other factors are to blame for these violent acts.

"The idea that having sex with a virgin cleanses you of AIDS does exist in South Africa and there have been reported cases of this as a motivating factor for child rape, but the predominant evidence suggests that this is infrequently the case," Dr Jewkes says. She quotes Mr Luke Lamprecht, the manager of the Teddy Bear Clinic in Johannesburg, which is the referral point for all child sex abuse cases in the metropolis. According to him, he has only seen one child rape case where the perpetrator believed the myth. This happened some 4 years ago - and the child's mother agreed that the HIV-positive man could rape her 4-year-old in exchange for cash.
"According to another report on child rape which investigated injury patterns, management and outcomes, there was a 1% sero-conversion rate.* This was, for most cases, in the absence of anti-retroviral therapy and therefore suggests that this myth is not an important cause of rape. If it had been, in view of the extensive injuries common in child rape, a higher rate of sero-conversion would be expected," says Dr Jewkes.

No increase

Dr Jewkes says that there is no evidence overall that infant rapes are increasing in South Africa, nor that any of the recent infant rape perpetrators, some of whom have been apprehended, knew they had HIV.

In response to the suggestion that infant rape is new in South Africa, Dr Lorna Martin says: "I have seen rape of babies periodically during the whole of the last decade in which I have been working as a district surgeon and forensic pathologist, and have not particularly seen more recently". Dr Jewkes suggests that the perception of an increase may be related to concerted efforts by the media to search for cases and give them prominence.

According to Dr Jewkes, there has been a recent cluster of 5 cases identified over a 2-month period at the end of 2001. "It is likely that at least one, and perhaps more, of these cases was a copy cat crime, unrelated to HIV. One, and probably 2, of the 5 recent cases were associated with Cape Town gang initiation rituals, which are notoriously extremely brutal," she stresses.*

A violent past

She says the country's past is to blame for the very high levels of interpersonal violence experienced. "Many people in South Africa have been extremely brutalised by the political violence in our past, the disruption of families and communities, high levels of poverty and the very high level of violence of all forms," she says.

Much of this violence is directed towards women and girl children - a result of the marked gender inequalities in our society, a culture of male sexual entitlement and climate of relatively impunity in which rape is perpetrated. "The root of the problem of infant rape, as with rape of older girls and women, substantially lies at these more mundane doors. It should be regarded as part of the spectrum of sexual violence against women and girls," Dr Jewkes voices.

Prevention

According to her, infant and child rape will only be prevented if all forms of violence can be reduced in our society, poverty reduced, and a climate of gender equality and respect for women and girl-children promoted.

She also thinks that rape ought to be redefined. "All acts of coercive sex should be regarded as rape, irrespective of the circumstances. And communities should develop an environment where men are deterred from rape through threat of punishment."

"To do this, more resources are needed for expanding the provision of medical staff trained in sexual assault examination and extending police and social work capacity for investigating and assisting rape cases."


* van As AB, Withers M, du Toit N, Millar AJW, Rode H. Child rape: Patterns of injury, management and outcome. S Afr Med J 2001; 91: 1035-1038.

For more information, please contact Dr Rachel Jewkes at
tel.: (012) 339-8525 or e-mail: rachel.jewkes@mrc.ac.za

Dr Jewkes responded to Commentary published in The Lancet (vol. 359 issue 9303, 26 January 2002) concerning the 'virgin myth' (Infant rape in South Africa by Graeme Pitcher and Douglas Bowley).

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