HIV AND VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection and of violence against women. Instead of tackling these challenges, President Thabo Mbeki attacks those who draw attention to the country’s problems.
SINDISWE Mbandlwa, 23, has been raped many times: among the rapists was her grandfather. She is HIV positive, a fate expected by 40% of those who are raped in South Africa, since they cannot get the preventive medicines that the government promises, but almost always fails to issue.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unaids say that sexual violence is a primary contributor to high rates of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Women’s inability to negotiate for safe sex leads to statistics like these noted by the United Nations special envoy to Africa, Stephen Lewis, on his return from Swaziland in March 2004: “HIV prevalence among pregnant women attending antenatal care centres in 1992 was 3.9%; in 1994 it was 16.1%; in 1996, 26%; in 1998, 31.6%; in 2000, 34.2%; in 2002, 38.6%, a jump of almost 900% over a decade; 87% of these infected women are under the age of 30; 67% are under the age of 25.” Because of Aids, life expectancy in Swaziland is 37 years. In South Africa it is 49 years.
Mbandlwa’s history is not unusual. The Cape Town group Rape Crisis (1) estimates that 20 times more women are raped than the official figure of 52,000 a year. On 17 April 2002 the government promised to give HIV-preventive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) (2) to rape victims. A year later it struck out a clause in new legislation that would have compelled it to give PEP, along with counselling and medication to prevent other sexually transmitted illnesses and pregnancy. But it retained a clause that ensured a rapist would get full medical treatment, including private hospital care, not only for HIV but to rehabilitate him for any alcohol or narcotics addiction he might have. Three years later the government has still given no reason for that decision.
It is not only rape that women fear. The South African Human Sciences Research Council released data in July 2004 which showed that every six hours a woman was murdered by her intimate partner. Political instability created dangers for Mbandlwa as a child. Fighting between black groups battling for political turf in the war against apartheid in the 1980s meant that her entire family was dislocated, and she was without a mother able to care for her. Like many children who have been raped, she became sexually promiscuous.
Loaded dice: a board game created by a social worker in Johannesburg, South Africa, for children with an HIV-infected relativeThere is a curious ambivalence about rape in South Africa. A study by the research group Community Information Empowerment and Transparency (Ciet) (3), based on a survey of nearly 300,000 children aged between 10 and 19 in 1,418 schools, found that raping “someone you know” was not seen as sexual violence. Nor was “unwanted touching”. More than a quarter said “girls enjoy rape”. The report said the views of South African youth on sexual violence and the risk of HIV infection “were compatible with acceptance of sexual coercion, and adaptive attitudes to survival in a violent society”; 11% of boys and 4% of girls claimed to have forced someone else to have sex; 66% of the boys and nearly 75% of the girls had been forced to have sex. Researchers said children who had been sexually abused were more likely to believe that sex with a virgin could cure HIV or Aids (4), which explains the high rate of rape of very young children, including babies.
The Red Cross Children’s hospital in Cape Town released nine years of research in December 2002 that showed the most common age at which children were admitted after being sexually violated was three, the age at which Mbandlwa was first raped by a carer after her sickly mother was admitted to hospital.
Not surprisingly, gang rape is common, Cape Town’s Groote Schuur rape clinic estimates it happens in 75% of sexual assault cases, while a study at Johannesburg’s Sunninghill clinic by Dr Adrienne Wulfsohn found it had happened in 60% of 1,000 rape cases treated. Research has found that those who gang rape do not get sexual pleasure from the victim, but from watching each other; this may be related to all post-conflict societies, rather than specific to South Africa.
Luke Bearup of Gender and Development for Cambodia wrote in a WHO discussion on sexual violence in July 2004: “In Cambodia we have a problem of . . . involvement in gang rape among sub-groups of urban, average-to-middle class males, who are often school or university students. [They] see very little wrong with what they are doing and are very open to talking about their involvement. Their understanding of masculinity [is] linked to having frequent sexual activity . . . They hire a girl, take her to a guest house and then later all their friends meet at the guesthouse, or are hiding inside, and all rape the girl together.”
In South Africa this is called jack-rolling: a woman who refuses a man’s advances is “punished” by being raped by him and his friends.
In South Africa, there is a growing problem of children who rape other children. The Teddy Bear clinic in Johannesburg claims that 24% of the offenders they deal with are aged seven to 14. Yet little is done in schools to assist children who have been raped, or who rape, and counselling services have been cut back.
Sexual violence is the fastest growing crime in the world and the one least likely to result in an effective conviction. Thoko Majokweni, head of the sexual offences unit in the National Prosecuting Authority, says that in South Africa 50% of cases before courts are for rape; in the Indian ocean towns of Durban and Mdantsane, 60%. South Africa claims a 7% successful conviction rate for rape, compared with Britain’s just over 5%.
Trafficking in women and children is more profitable than drugs. (The International Organisation on Migrancy estimates that it accounts for more than a million women and children each year. Belarus, under the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko, “exports” 10,000 trafficked females each year, while democratic Germany “imports” 50,000.)
Men’s groups are slowly emerging across South Africa to reflect on the problems. It is not unusual to hear men admit to rape. At the end of a conference on masculinity this year, a man told how, when young, he and his friends went out drinking and raping; when he married, he raped his wife. Only now did he realise the devastation he had wrought; he was trying to remedy his behaviour.
Bearup wrote that a contributing factor in male violence in Cambodia was “the impact of second generation trauma that Cambodians suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime, and the ongoing challenges of persisting poverty and weak governance . . . Many parents, traumatised by the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime . . . have less emotional capacity to engage with their children. This potentially results in large numbers of young people who are unable to empathise with others.”
A coordinator with a South African group, Men As Partners, Sgidi Sibeko, has pondered this failure in parenting personally. He thought of the men who had been role models within his family: “I couldn’t find any . . . I thought of my father, I thought of my uncle, I thought of the men around me and I was blown away because I could not come up with a man as a positive role model. I was really impacted by the bad image of men as the perpetrators of violence.”
In South Africa, as in Cambodia, years of conflict and regimes that did not respect their people have led to a failure in people’s self-respect. The huge daily difficulties and endless humiliations inflicted by the state broke many families: when parents are obsessed with survival, thoughtful parenting becomes a luxury. Generations of children have grown up without guidance, role models or personal pride. A lack of self-respect makes people more prone to indulge in high-risk behaviour (hence South Africa’s high rate of HIV). If their self-image is battered by failure to find work, they are more likely to lash out at others. In 2004 the Human Sciences Research Council reported that 57% of South Africans were impoverished and unemployment was 40%. Rape is not confined to the poor: it cuts through socio-economic barriers like no other crime. But all rapists have a poor self-image.
The government has succeeded in reducing all crimes but rape; this September police statistics showed a decrease in all crimes except those against women and children. The number of rapes reported in 2004 shot up to more than 55,000. Aids is filling the cemeteries (Johannesburg is building four new ones this year). In July the government reported that 6.59 million people are infected with HIV (in a population of 42 million); fewer than 60,000 are on triple therapy to delay death. Official denial, led by President Thabo Mbeki, is ramp ant. A report released in January by South Africa’s Medical Research Council observed that government statistics understate deaths from Aids by up to 300%.; 74% of deaths of children under five in 2001 were from Aids-related illnesses, not the 25% in government data. Unaids reported in 2003 that two and a half times as many young women are HIV infected as men.
It is accepted globally that women and children are more vulnerable to HIV infection than men: much of the transmission is the result of forced or coerced sex. The dilemma faced by a 26-year-old Aids councillor, Nozipho Mtimkulu, in South Africa’s Northwest province, illustrates the challenges. In the past year her 28-year-old brother has made four women pregnant, but when she tries to speak to him about safe sex he tells her to get lost. “How can I encourage him to practice safe sex and to treat women better?” she asked a hall of Aids educators. They looked blank and one man said dismissively: “Let him die.” Mtimkulu’s brow furrowed. Someone else suggested: “She should tell her parents and get them to talk to him.” A third added: “Yes, but what if her father says this is what men do, that he is just sowing his wild oats?” Some in the hall nodded, some shook their heads, others rubbed their heads.
In another zone lives the queen of the Amapondo, Sigcau, to whom Nelson Mandela pays respect. She is an elegant woman, a Swazi by birth, who has taken to heart the people of her husband, the AmaXhosa, and their many health problems, including high HIV infection rates. She said: “There is a woman who works in my home, her daughter got pregnant by the local teacher. In our communities teachers are looked up to. When he died of Aids, we found he had impregnated eight women: they and their children are falling ill. Sixteen people are going to die because he did not know how to behave.” She shakes her head.
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