Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 14 August 2013

Wanted: a cure for the plague of child rape

The rape of a child is an abomination so horrific that it seems an impossible task to attempt to explain it. But if we are to defeat it, it’s essential to understand something about our enemy.

It was a Tuesday morning when I first heard of two incidents of child rape in Ceres in the Western Cape. The radio phone lines lit up with members of the general public expressing their anger and disgust that we live in a country where a four-month-old baby girl and a seven-year-old boy could be raped, simultaneously. The usual refrain for a return of the death penalty accompanied this outcry and, in all honesty, I secretly agreed.

There is no need to pontificate on why the death penalty is not viable from a constitutional or human rights point of view – or indeed overall, as I believe when I am calm and rational. What is important is to take cognisance of two things: the anger of society at such horrific incidents and the causality that leads to any person to committing such a horrible violation, especially on a child. These two issues need to be understood (not justified), since if we ever want to bring these abuses to an end, we need to understand what demon we are trying to slay.

As we commemorate Women’s Month, with marches, speeches by politicians and awareness campaigns, surely at the heart of this milieu, one aim and objective should be central to all of these efforts: end the onslaught of rape and other abuses against women, children, the elderly and the disabled; all those in our society who are vulnerable to such violence.

Child rape has been a sickening reality in our society, and the most penetrating question has always been, “Why?” During the dark days of Mbeki/Tshabalala-Msimang Aids denialism, the mythology of sex with a virgin as a cure for the virus emerged. Media coverage of girls, more alarmingly infants, being raped spread virally across news media, with a report compiled by Professor Rachel Jewkes et al for the Medical Research Council confirming that 4% of an HIV-positive subgroup of men were willing to seek a cure through sex with a virgin.

But this is by no means the only explanation for child rape, and in any case, it is on the decline. Fast forward to a few years later, and we have Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, with his welcome understanding of the fact that chemical combinations in anti-retroviral tablet form most effectively delays the impact of HIV/Aids. Alongside, reports of raping children to cure the virus seem to have subsided. Dianne Massawe at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre puts it this way: “The notion around having sex, either with young children or virgins to cure HIV/AIDS, has been dispelled, and a lot of public awareness aided this.”

In the early hours of that horrific Saturday morning in Ceres, the baby was reportedly asleep in bed with her parents when she was snatched, along with the seven-year-old boy, and raped in a vineyard. To the dismay of the victims’ families, the 32-year-old man who was detained and questioned for 24 hours has since been released.

So, in the midst of our frustration and grief, we return to the question: why the hell are babies being raped? “The HIV myth may have contributed to some of the instances, and specifically account for the targeting of children as rape victims; however, there are other factors which are generally related to rape,” says Dr Giada Del Fabbro, a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist with The Forensic Psychology Centre.

Massawe, for her part, believes that “our society has normalised sexual violence and this is no longer shocking. Rape is about power, dominance and one exerting the power that they have over another individual. Gender inequality contributes to this and so does the socialisation of young boys and girls. Also, it is important to note that SA has come from a violent past and violence as a whole has been normalised. As a society we have not come up with alternatives to deal with conflict.”

Del Fabbro adds that rape is “a crime of power, usually committed by an individual who feels disempowered, or weak in some respect, and takes out these feelings of inadequacy on a suitable victim.” She does not believe there is a solid causal link between the consumption of pornography and rape, but concedes that there is sometimes a correlation. Rather, she says, rapists or abusers are repeating their own cycles of abuse and were themselves victims of similar abuse at a young age.

Often, she says, child rape is not about sex at all, but about the sense of power that comes with preying on the defenceless. “The increase in children as victims of rape and abuse may not necessarily be due to an increase in the sexualisation of children but rather the dynamics of rape which is about power and finding a victim that one has a perceived easier chance of getting away with the crime. Victims targeted are often those perceived as weaker, more inferior,” she says. “Thus children may be viewed as an easier target because of the perception that they are less likely to report abuse and less likely to be able to fight back. Children may also be more vulnerable to being victims of continued abuse as a result of the breakdown in social welfare services in this country – services which are currently under-resourced and poorly funded. ”

There is some progress in fighting the scourge, certainly. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe made the announcement on Wednesday 7 August that 22 sexual offences courts would be rolled out nationally, a decision which has been welcomed by – among others – legal and advocacy NGO Tshwaranang. It seems, on the strength of Bra Jeff’s announcement, that government is finally listening.

And boy, does it need to listen. The much publicised SA National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, by The Human Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council, collected results from 25,000 individuals, and the results were disquieting. Apart from being a nation of secret smokers and pre-diabetic fatties, it seems we have issues; serious psychological issues. The survey found that one in 10 South Africans suffered from mental illness caused by trauma or exposure to violence. We’re a traumatised, broken society. South Africa is angry – and often, secretly so.

“Our crime statistics and statistics around rape and violent crime may reflect a rise of an antisocial climate in South Africa. As part of this antisocial climate, people become objectified, which in turn makes it easier to commit awful acts of violence and aggression, in the belief that one’s own needs come first and need to be satisfied at all costs. Objectification of others also assists in minimising guilt and feelings of empathy for another,” explains Dr Del Fabbro.

Worse yet, we face the real prospect of this tide possibly never subsiding, but instead snowballing as generations of violence beget more violence. The trauma experienced by the victims and survivors of such sexual violence are severely traumatised. The mother of the seven-year-old boy reports that he is now rocked awake by nightmares and is unwilling to speak of the trauma he experienced. Since the four-month-old baby lacks the ability to articulate the effects of the assault committed against her, we could never know what ill-effects she is left with.

We cannot continue on this trajectory; it is not just for the state to provide the resources to deal with sexual violence, but an effective shift in societal attitudes and psychological health for sexual violence to come to an end. If we want to be in position to truly celebrate Women’s Day, I mean really celebrate it, we will have to deal effectively with our sexual violence plague.

It is not enough simply to say that we have sickos in our midst. We need real answers to combat this plague. DM


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