Child rape: A taboo within the AIDS taboo; More and more girls are being raped by men who believe this will 'cleanse' them of the disease, but people don't want to confront the issue

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Child rape: A taboo within the AIDS taboo; More and more girls are being raped by men who believe this will 'cleanse' them of the disease, but people don't want to confront the issue

Sunday Times, South Africa - Sunday, April 4, 1999
Prega Govender

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 province.

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 rapes.

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 Wendolins.

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 today.

"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 young children."

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 clean."

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 the issue."

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 KwaZulu-Natal.

"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 HIV-infected."

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 new crisis.

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.

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