World AIDS Day: AIDS and Africa’s Hidden War

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Here is a small part of another wonderful essay Helen Epstein (author of The Invisible Cure) wrote.

AIDS and Africa’s Hidden War

By: Helen Epstein

One October evening in 2001, in an impoverished shantytown in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, David Potse entered the house of a former girlfriend, and raped her 9-month-old daughter. The child was later taken to a nearby hospital, where her internal injuries were found to be so severe that she nearly died. The nurses nicknamed her “Baby Tshepang” which means “have hope.” After a series of operations, she miraculously survived. Potse was apprehended soon afterwards. At his trial, he said that he was out drinking on the night of the assault. However, DNA tests showed his semen was present in the child’s rectum, and his current girlfriend testified that she walked in on him during the rape. Potse was sentenced to life in prison in 2002.

News reports about Baby Tshepang, along with a small number of similar cases that came to light at around the same time, ignited moral horror across the nation. “South Africa has been shamed,” declared the proceedings of a Parliamentary committee on child abuse; addressing a group called the “Moral Regeneration Movement,” Deputy President Jacob Zuma—himself soon to be implicated in a major corruption scandal—said the baby rape cases displayed “barbarism and moral decay of the worst kind.” The Sowetan newspaper called for a state of emergency and one columnist asked whether South African men were becoming “sex cannibals.”

All of this came during a period of national soul searching. The euphoria that followed the end of apartheid in 1994 was giving way to the morning – after recognition of the challenge of developing a society wracked by poverty, crime, and a new deadly disease. Roughly a quarter of adults in the country were HIV-positive and everyone was trying to understand why. Gothic rumors swirled in townships and rural areas: AIDS was caused by witchcraft, germ warfare against blacks, or something in the food. President Thabo Mbeki declared that Africans were prone to AIDS because of poverty and malnutrition—in other words, AIDS was one of the many legacies of past oppression by whites. But other observers—including UN officials and journalists—had another theory. They attributed the AIDS epidemic to the subjugation of women in South African society, of which the nation’s high rates of child abuse and rape were symptoms. The baby rape cases bolstered their claims and came to symbolize just how dire the situation was.

Until the furor over Baby Tshepang, rape was not a crime that had aroused much public concern. The vast majority of rape victims in South Africa are not infants, but mature women or teenagers, and most incidents are treated with remarkable indifference. Few cases are reported to the police; if the assault is committed by a boyfriend or husband, it is usually not even considered a crime, and a victim’s screams are usually ignored. Studies show that a large proportion of both men and women in South Africa blame women—not men—for rape. Asked for suggestions about how to reduce the incidence of rape, respondents in another study said that women should be taught how to “dress and behave” and should not be allowed out after seven o’clock at night. One of the reasons rape is so seldom reported is that many women internalize this logic, and fear that if the incident becomes widely known others will wonder what they did to deserve it.

When cases are reported, the authorities often fail to take them seriously. In her 2001 book Proud of Me: Speaking out about Sexual Violence and HIV, South African journalist and activist Charlene Smith describes a scene that defies comment. An eight-year-old girl had been raped in a township near Durban, a large port city on the Indian Ocean. She was taken to a hospital where she lay on a trolley in a corridor for four hours, waiting for someone to examine her. Meanwhile, the rapist, who had been beaten up by a vigilante crowd, was being treated by the district surgeon. Smith was alerted to the case, and after she screamed at the district surgeon over the phone, he agreed to go see the girl. What he did not tell Smith was that he planned to bring the rapist with him to the hospital. The rapist was placed in a wheelchair, and wheeled down the same corridor where the girl was lying. When she saw him, she became so hysterical that any examination became impossible.

In 2000, the Johannesburg police department’s sexual offenses unit had only three officers and they were saddled with 200 new cases a month. As dockets pile up in police stations around the country, many victims are advised to privately negotiate restitution with the alleged rapist’s family. Sometimes the accused make their own arrangements with the police, who will typically “lose” a docket for the equivalent of three American dollars. The conviction rate for reported rapes is about 7%, and most of these cases involve children. Among cases of adult rape, the conviction rate is 1%. “It’s a logic problem,” says Rachel Jewkes, head of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Unit. “There is legislation that says rape is illegal, but it is at odds with what a great many people believe to be true.”

But when confronted with the baby rape cases, South Africans could no longer look the other way. Rape is a horrible crime, but the horror of baby rape is naturally of a different order. In early 2002, several journalists—most from Europe and the US—reported that the epidemic of sexual violence was being fueled by a desperate myth: African men believed that raping a virgin would cure them of HIV. One BBC journalist described the Baby Tshepang incident as a typical example of such a “virgin rape myth” case. This is almost certainly false. Before Potse was apprehended, six other men were charged with the crime but were soon released for lack of evidence. One of them said he had heard about the “virgin rape cure” on the radio and the girlfriend of another died, probably of AIDS, shortly after the men were arrested. The BBC journalist put these loose facts together to draw his erroneous conclusion. In fact, these men were absolved of the crime, and there is no evidence that the true assailant—David Potse—raped Baby Tshepang because he thought doing so would cure him of HIV. Indeed, there is no evidence that he was himself HIV-positive, or that if he was, that he knew he was.

The idea that “virgin rape myths” are a significant cause of either child abuse or the spread of AIDS in Africa is itself a myth, perpetuated by stigmatizing attitudes towards people with HIV and racist fears of black sexuality. A similar “myth about a myth” was prevalent in the US during the nineteenth century, when there was widespread panic that the hoards of newly arrived southern and eastern European immigrants were raping virgins to cure themselves of syphilis.

Although some surveys suggest that belief in the “virgin rape” myth is common in South Africa, in only a tiny number of child abuse cases has the accused himself claimed that it was a motivating factor in his crime. A study of child rape cases in Johannesburg found that infection rates among the victims were far lower than would be expected if the children had been targeted by HIV positive men. Very few South African men know their HIV status in any case. The same researchers found that most people who knew about the “virgin rape myth” had read about it in newspapers or heard about it on the radio; none of the respondents in the study knew of a single case in which a child had been raped for that reason. In many traditional African belief systems, sex is held to have a ritualistic, purifying function. “So, if people hear of the myth they may think it sounds as if it could be true,” Jewkes told a reporter in 2002. But this does not mean that people act on it.

Why did David Potse rape Baby Tshepang, if not to cure himself of AIDS? And why is rape so common—and so widely tolerated—in South Africa in general? Outsiders are inclined to see the African men who beat and rape women as out-of-control brutes who heedlessly spread HIV. But studies are finding that violent men are actually enacting a cultural drama that is hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years old. These men are driven by myths, all right, but these are not myths about “virgin rape cures” for HIV. They are far more powerful than that and much harder to dispel. The roots of these myths extend deep in the African past and are finding new life in the upheavals and inequalities of contemporary South African society.

Copyright © by Helen Epstein

Read the rest of this great article here.


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