WHEN seven-year-old Sibongile saw Baba, her 62-year-old
neighbour, standing in the doorway of her house, she trustingly
invited him inside.
She knew the old man well - she used to play with his four
grandchildren in the sand.
But while she sat at a table in her one-roomed house, happily
drawing figures on a piece of paper, he called her to the
rickety single bed she shared with her mother and told her he
was going to show her his "toy".
Before the Grade 2 pupil from Claremont, near Durban, could
react, he pulled down her panties and raped her.
Then he placed his fingers across her lips and warned her not
to tell anyone about their "game".
That night, when her 38-year-old mother returned from work,
Sibongile complained of being "sore".
But it only after her mother took her daughter to a doctor did
the little girl sob and blurt out her story.
Initially denying any involvement in the rape, Baba eventually
told Sibongile's mother that he was HIV positive and had wanted
to "cleanse" himself by having sex with a virgin.
Sibongile's story is by no means unique.
According to University of Durban-Westville anthropology
lecturer and researcher Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala, it is an
increasingly typical scenario, played out daily in hundreds of
homes throughout South Africa as AIDS carriers target girls
under eight years old for sex in the belief that it will cure
them of the dreaded disease.
As the deadly virus tightens its stranglehold on South Africa,
justice officials and AIDS workers say that in KwaZuluNatal
alone at least five rape cases involving girls under eight are
being dealt with daily in every magistrate's court in the
An in-depth investigation by Leclerc-Madlala, who is completing
a doctoral thesis on AIDS and related gender issues, suggests
that a popular myth that sex with a virgin is the cure for AIDS
could be the root cause of this shocking upsurge in child
The 41-year-old American researcher was the first white woman
to marry a black South African when the infamous Immorality and
Mixed Marriages Act was scrapped in June 1985.
The mother of four conducted her research among the
poverty-stricken rural community of St Wendolins, outside
Durban, where she was forced to live for six years after being
constantly hounded and persecuted by apartheid-era policemen
for marrying a black man.
"I lived in a two-roomed clay and wattle hut with my husband,
his two brothers and their seven children as well as my
husband's 80-year-old grandmother - and 10 goats.
"Water was a 5km walk away, and there were no lights or proper
sanitation. But I got to understand the locals and their myths,
fears and expectations."
She became known as the white makoti (young bride) in St
In Leclerc-Madlala's study involving the local residents, women
respondents said the AIDS-cure myth was widespread among Zulu
men, particularly those from rural areas.
She notes disturbing similarities between the way in which
sexually transmitted diseases were dealt with in Europe in the
last century and the manner in which AIDS is being addressed
"According to 19th-century beliefs, sex with a child was
thought to provide a cure for syphilis," she says.
"Quack doctors kept special brothels in Liverpool since 1827 to
provide this cure.
"Most of the girls used in the brothels were imbeciles."
According to Leclerc-Madlala, the myth that sex with a virgin
is a cure for AIDS is not confined to KwaZulu-Natal.
"Fellow AIDS researchers in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have
told me that the myth also exists in these countries and that
it is being blamed for the high rate of sexual abuse against
Her experience in St Wendolins and her participation in AIDS
education programmes indicate that the myth is more prevalent
than local authorities in South Africa and AIDS educators are
prepared to acknowledge.
It may also, she says, be a significant factor in the reported
rapid rise in the past few years of sexual abuse and HIV
infection among young girls in the province.
Leclerc-Madlala advances two arguments for the myth.
"Some say a child virgin avoids infection by nature of being
'closed up there' (a reference to the vagina).
"Many see the vaginal passage into the body as being 'sealed
off' by an intact hymen. The intact hymen is viewed as a
barrier, which prevents the HIV 'germ' from getting into and
settling in the girl's blood.
"The belief is that a man will somehow get an infusion of
'clean blood' through this method.
"Another view offered by respondents as to why a virgin girl is
believed to have special immunity against sexually transmitted
afflictions in general has to do with her 'dry' vaginal tract.
"Generally speaking, a prepubescent girl is not seen as having
the vaginal secretions of an adult woman.
"Her vaginal tract, yet undeveloped, is perceived as 'clean',
'dry' and 'uncontaminated' as she herself is considered morally
Leclerc-Madlala despairs at what she believes has become a
taboo within the AIDS taboo.
"I feel sick in my stomach when I think of the number of young
children who are raped by these men who claim that it will
cleanse them of AIDS. But because it's such a sensitive issue
with potentially racist overtones people don't want to confront
Leclerc-Madlala, who has also carried out a study on the
responses of the Zulu youth to the AIDS epidemic, found that
child rape is also committed as a preventive measure to avoid
contracting the HIV/AIDS virus from older women.
A 23-year-old male respondent told her: "The thing is everybody
over 12 years old in the township might already have the virus.
So your chances of not getting it are better if you go for the
six- or eight-year-olds. Not 10-year-olds - some are already
pretty experienced by that time."
A 20-year-old told her: "If I have HIV I can just go out and
spread it to 100 people so we all go together. Why should they
be left behind having fun if I must die?"
Nono Simelela, the director of the national AIDS programme,
agrees with Leclerc-Madlala that the myth that AIDS could be
cured by having sex with a virgin is prevalent thinking in
"But it's totally wrong and tragic, and it's putting lots of
young children at risk. People need to really understand what
the AIDS virus does to the body," she says.
Ubashany Naidoo, the deputy director of Childline, says the
myth is causing huge problems.
"We are seeing more and more cases of young rape victims as a
result. Some of these children have been raped quite violently.
"Also, a lot of people prefer having sex with children knowing
that there is a big chance that the kid may not be
Dennis Bailey, the KwaZulu-Natal director of the
non-governmental organisation Planned Parenthood Association of
South Africa, says the myth is particularly prevalent among one
section of the community in the province.
Even the courts in the province are feeling the effects of this
Ashen Singh, a magistrate at Camperdown, in the KwaZulu-Natal
Midlands, says at least five child rape victim cases are being
dealt with every day and that "some of the accused have told us
that raping a virgin would help them to get rid of AIDS".
A Stanger court prosecutor, Ayesha Bissessar, says they deal
with between 50 and 80 cases of child rape a month.
"It's the same story here. Most of the alleged rapists tell us
that having sex with virgins is a cure for AIDS. Some say that
they wanted to avoid contracting AIDS and felt safer having sex
with young children."
The overwhelming silence over AIDS and the lack of real
discussion about sexuality among Africans is, in the words of
Leclerc-Madlala, where the real problem lies.
For children like Sibongile, still traumatised by the rape
itself, the wait has just begun.
Her mother spends her days praying against hefty odds that her
daughter is not about to become just another AIDS statistic.