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South African men rape babies as 'cure' for Aids By Jane Flanagan in Johannesburg (Filed: 11/11/2001)
THE alleged rape of a nine-month-old baby girl by six men in a remote part of rural South Africa last week has focused the nation on an 80 per cent rise in child sexual abuse over a year, much of it connected with the country's Aids pandemic.
More than 67,000 cases of rape and sexual assaults against children were reported last year, compared with 37,500 in 1998. Child welfare groups believe that the number of unreported incidents could be up to 10 times that number.
Some of the victims were as young as six-months-old, a number of whom died from their injuries, while others contracted HIV. The largest increase in attacks has been against children under seven.
Although rises in poverty, violent crime and unemployment are said to have contributed to the escalation in child abuse, the most significant and worrying factor is the widespread myth sweeping the country that having sex with children provides a cure for Aids.
Cati Vawda, the director of the Children's Rights Centre in Durban, said: "There is a belief across South Africa that a virgin will cure a man of HIV or Aids. We have no idea where this idea has come from, but it has been around for a few years and has certainly taken hold."
Kelly Hatfield, of People Opposed to Women Abused , added: "South Africa has reached a new low. This rumour certainly has become a common belief."
Police say at least one of the men who attacked the nine-month-old girl is HIV-positive. The baby has also been tested for the virus and given anti-retroviral drugs as a precaution.
The girl - whose name has not been released - remains in intensive care at the Kimberley Hospital. While doctors said it was likely that her physical wounds would heal, experts remained concerned about psychological trauma.
Even in a country that is accustomed to violent crime, the attack has shocked the nation. Pictures of the six accused appeared on front pages of newspapers across South Africa and radio phone-in shows were inundated with callers demanding to know what the police and Government were doing to stop child abuse.
More than 1,000 people, mainly women and children, gathered at the magistrate's court in the remote town of Upington in the north of the country to vent their anger as the trial opened against the men, aged between 24 and 66, accused of assaulting the infant. The crowd chanted slogans demanding more protection for children, and waved banners and posters.
Dozens of police and soldiers had to be deployed to stop the crowd from surging into the courtroom, where the case was postponed until later this month. The six accused men were remanded in custody.
South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive citizens in the world. According to official figures, one in nine South Africans are infected with the virus, although many health workers believe the rate of infection to be closer to one in eight. Schools often harbour the worst sex offenders.
Next month, a deputy headmaster in the Eastern Cape goes on trial accused of raping schoolgirls over a 10-year period, resulting in 20 of them becoming pregnant.
Joan van Niekerk, the chairman of Childline South Africa, said: "How can we hope that a school will teach children to behave responsibly when the very people who are educating them are themselves abusers?"
The 185 child abuse cases that are reported to the police each day represent just a fraction of the true number committed, according to child welfare groups. Of these, just five per cent result in a successful conviction. For those mothers aware that their children have been abused, the decision to make a complaint is rarely easy.
Edith Kriel, a social worker who helps child victims in the Eastern Cape, said: "Child abusers are often relatives of their victims - even their fathers and providers. For women, making a complaint is a hard choice because they end up losing their husbands, the breadwinners and the roof over their heads.
-- Dick Hertz (firstname.lastname@example.org), July 08, 2002