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By Carolyn Dempster
In Johannesburg
Psychologists are hard pressed to explain a rise in sexual assault, but fear the social consequences

RAPE is the new buzzword in South Africa's already crime-sated media. Not a day passes [!], nor can you turn a page of a newspaper [!] without reading a report of yet another horrifying assault [!] on a woman or child [!], some as young as six months old. [!]

It has become such a regular feature of life in South African society that the vast majority of assaults go unreported, and many of the perpetrators believe they are doing nothing wrong [!]. According to the latest police statistics, a woman is raped every 83 seconds [!]. Every 14 minutes a rape will be reported at a police station.

These figures date back to 1994, the year South Africa made the transition to democracy [!]. In the opinion of police investigators and care professionals, the situation has deteriorated even further since then [!].

It was only a few days into 1997 when five armed assailants broke into the home of a family in the small Johannesburg suburb of Malvern. After tying up the adults, the gunmen took the two girls in the family, aged 13 and 15, upstairs and raped them repeatedly. Both girls are now too terrified to leave the house. The younger adolescent cannot even bring herself to use the bathroom, the scene of her ordeal. And it will take weeks before either of the girls finds out whether they are pregnant or have been infected with AIDS.

Days later another gang intent on rape and burglary struck in Observatory, to the north-east of Johannesburg. The method was the same. In an intensive hunt and search operation, the police tracked down and arrested the men they believe are responsible.

For a while the dinner table talk of rape subsided in Johannesburg's northern suburbs. But then, last Thursday, Leon Erasmus and his nine-months pregnant financée, Gina, became the latest victims. Leon lay, bound and helpless on the floor of his home, and watched one of the armed men rape 18-year old Gina while he pleaded with them not to touch her because she was heavily pregnant [!].

Also watching was Gina's three-year-old niece. “I looked up and saw her big eyes looking at me” [!], the pregnant woman remembers. Meanwhile the rapist shouted to his colleague in Zulu, “Every time we do this, it gets easier -- look, these people are too scared to move.” [!!!]

How does Gina feel? “Dirty”, she answers. I feel so dirty… and dirty for my baby inside me.” But her silent acquiescence probably saved the life of her niece.

If this and other similar stories strike terror into the hearts of South Africa's white citizens [i.e, all the above victims were white], then pity the thousands of black women and children who run the gauntlet of the townships and squalid squatter camps, where unemployment and alcohol abuse [!] are the twin evils fuelling sexual frustration [!!!].

In Memelodi, a township outside Pretoria, Cecilia Nthlaborlala was waiting with her sister for a taxi home. Eight armed men confronted the two women. While three dragged Maggie into a nearby hostel and raped her there, Cecilia was bundled off into the bushes and gang-raped for four hours by the five remaining men.

Unlike many thousands of women who are too ashamed to take their story to the police, she reported hers, but the men remain at large, free to terrorize others.

Trauma counsellors, psychologists and politicians have been hard pressed [!] to explain the apparent [!!] increase in rape. Greame Simpson, director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation gives one of the reasons as the violent transitional turmoil in South African society.

“For at least the past decade, the political and criminal violence rooted in apartheid [!!!] has been matched by incremental increases in the more ‘private' phenomenon of rape, marital battery and child abuse”, he argues. “This is an ongoing symptomatic manifestation of the growing powerlessness [!] and perceived emasculation of men [!!] in this violence-ridden and traditionally male-dominated society.” [!!!]

Whether that explains the rape and abuse of five-year-old girls [!] by nine-year-old boys [!!] is another matter. [!!!] An average of 200 child rapes [!] are reported to the police Child Protection Unit in the province of Gauteng every week [!!!]. Most child rapes remain hidden [!] because the children are simply too terrified to tell. [!]

Glenys van Halter is an artist who has dedicated her life to working with children in the squatter settlements in the squatter settlements around Johannesburg. When she first started giving art and craft classes in the settlement schools, she was shocked to see little girls and boys drawing huge pictures of penises. [!!!]

“It was then I realized just how serious the abuse was”, she says.  “There is a major crisis out there. I often get very depressed and spend many afternoons crying. All these children want is a secure, normal, happy life, which is their right. [COMMENT: That is precisely what they enjoyed under the white-dominated system of apartheid.] Very few children have access to counselling, and there is going to be a disturbed and traumatized generation if something is not done.”

A fact file of cases reveals that children are growing up hiding their trauma, believing that sex is something they have to give in to (on the part of girls) [!] or that they can simply take at will [!!] (in the case of boys).

Marilyn Donaldson, a clinical psychologist, goes against the common grain when she points out that sex offers an instant high [!], a quick fix for frustration.  “Sniffing glue gives poverty-stricken individuals a quick, cheap and effective high [!!], and so does sex.[!!!] And if the sex can't be obtained by mutual consent, rape is the next best option.” [!!!]

What is worse, according to the team of counsellors and psychologists at the University of the Witwatersrand's trauma clinic in Johannesburg, is that the perpetrators feel that they are entitled to instant gratification [!].

“To this end the bodies of women and children [!] are frequently used in a callous and careless way”, says one of the counsellors, Mercy Hlongweni. “Young perpetrators talk about boredom as being a factor in their reasons for raping. Adolescent boys flippantly explain why they raped their sister [!] cousin [!!] or younger brother [!!!] simply because they wanted to see what sex was like.”

One 15-year-old told his eight-year-old cousin after he had abused her that he was going to be a rapist when he grew up [!].

Amid the public outcry for castration [COMMENT: Why not just necklace them all? That's how they took over the country], there is some effort on the part of the courts to prevent alleged rapists getting out quite so easily on bail. But as the trauma clinic counsellors point out, the problem exists on a much deeper level. Sexual practices, myths and beliefs need to be researched, explored and exploded and the silence around the issue broken if the country's women and children are to escape unscathed.

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