South Africa’s child-rape epidemic

March 2, 2010

“Don’t ask me to smile, I don’t know how to smile,” says Fumana Ntontlo, as she poses for a portrait, hands folded in her lap, on the bed of her one-room shack in South Africa’s Khayelitsha township.


The walls and roof of her tiny home are made from corrugated metal, insulated on the inside with splintered and stained plywood, from which hangs a faded blue fabric pouch holding several pairs of well-worn shoes. Some yellowed and curling magazine pictures are taped at eye-level and a lace curtain flutters in the breeze of a small window protected by metal burglar bars. A bare bulb hangs from the ceiling by a wire.

Ntontlo is a “survivor” – the word used by health workers to describe victims of sexual violence.

She was eight years old and playing hide-and-seek at a cousin’s house when another distant relative, who was about 15 at the time, convinced her to hide behind the couch with him. He then lay on top of her, pressing down hard on her small frame. He lifted her skirt and entered her, says Ntontlo.

“I was crying, but he slapped me and threatened to beat me more.”

Now 30 years old, Ntontlo was too embarrassed and confused at the time of the incident to tell anyone.

“I was afraid of what my mother would say and I was also afraid of the one who raped me.”

Ntontlo’s shame and the guilt she felt led to troubled teenage years.

“I became very promiscuous. I had so many boyfriends. If I saw a man I was attracted to I would do everything I could to have sex with him that day,” she says, explaining how she eventually contracted HIV/AIDS through unprotected sex.

“This thing that happened to me when I was eight, it destroyed my life,” says Ntontlo.

She’s not the only one.


A volunteer from Simelela, an organization dealing with sexual violence, uses a doll to teach children about inappropriate touching and sexual abuse, at a pre-school in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world, including child and baby rape, with one person estimated to be raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations.

In Khayelitsha, a sprawling, crime-ridden township of more than 500,000 people, many of the victims are children under the age of 10.

“Children are the most vulnerable targets for perpetrators. In Khayelitsha there is a lack of parental supervision and a lack of after school programs and secure playgrounds,” says Tara Appalraju, program director for Simelela, a local organization that provides medical care and counseling to rape victims.


Children cover their genitals during a lesson about inappropriate touching and sexual abuse, at a pre-school in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Some 42 per cent of Simelela’s cases in the second half of 2009 were children under age 10.

Economic, social and cultural factors also play a role in the prevalence of rape against children, says Appalraju.

Situated on the dusty, wind-swept flats in the shadow of Cape Town ’s scenic Table Mountain and within minutes drive from some of the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods, many Khayelitsha residents live in metal shacks with pirated electricity and communal water taps and toilets.


Thenjiwe Madzinga’s grandchildren play soccer on the street outside their small shack in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, February 23, 2010. Madzinga, 66, (not pictured) cares for her five grandchildren, including four who were orphaned when Madzinga’s own daughter died from AIDS in 2002. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Crime is rampant and law-enforcement in the warren of twisting footpaths between crowded makeshift homes is next to impossible.

Children often share rooms and sometimes beds with adults and are often exposed to sex at an early age in a patriarchal society where male sexuality often dominates.

In such a setting, those who feel trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence may exert what little control they have over their lives through sexual violence, especially when alcohol is involved.

“Alcohol is a huge, huge problem as it changes the character and personality of an individual,” says Appalraju.

The Simelela clinic where Appalraju works is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a doctor and counselor always on call. On average, two or three children under age 10 are brought in daily by family members seeking help.

On holidays and weekends, the numbers increase.


A teacher embraces children who became frightened during a lesson about inappropriate touching and sexual abuse, at a pre-school in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Only a fraction of all actual rape cases are reported and many activists say rape has reached epidemic proportions in the country, which will host football’s World Cup in June and July.

Making matters worse, Khayelitsha also has perhaps the highest rate of HIV in South Africa, which in turn has the largest number of sufferers, with more than 5.7-million people living with the virus.


Khanyie Mzamane, 24, who has albinism and is HIV-negative, poses for a portrait while wearing a T-shirt in support of her sister, who is HIV-positive, in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 15, 2010. Brightly colored T-shirts with the HIV-positive logo are distributed by the Treatment Action Campaign and are intended to reduce the stigma attached to the disease. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

Ntontlo eventually realized her life was out of control and sought help after telling her family about the incident when she was 22. Charges against the boy who she said raped her were dropped due to lack of evidence 14 years after the alleged attack.

“Justice has failed me,” says Ntontlo.

Yet she chooses to speak out about her experience in the hope of helping others who have lived through sexual violence.

“For so long I thought I was alone, but now I know this has happened to so many people, not just me,” says Ntontlo.

Appalraju says the harm done extends far beyond individual survivors to the community as a whole.

“We could have a next generation of very angry youth because their issues were not dealt with. That is one of our biggest concerns.”


Artwork is painted on the windows of a preschool in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township February 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly


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