South Africa's rape epidemic

One in four of the country's men admit to the crime, a new survey finds


Judy Berman
June 18, 2009 10:19PM (UTC)

It isn't news that rape is an enormous problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, where victims are also highly likely to be exposed to HIV. But even knowing that, the results of a new survey conducted by South Africa's Medical Research Council (MRC) are still horrifying: More than one in four of the country's men admit to being rapists. And that's just the beginning. The heartbreaking statistics just keep coming: Three-quarters of rapists had committed their first offense as a teenager. Five percent had raped a woman or girl in the past year. Almost half were repeat offenders. And "men who are physically violent towards women are twice as likely to be HIV-positive...  Any woman raped by a man over the age of 25 has a one in four chance of her attacker being HIV-positive."

And it isn't only women who have been affected by South Africa's rape epidemic. While 28 percent of men admitted to forcing themselves on a woman or girl, three percent confessed to raping a man or boy. Of those surveyed, a shocking one in 10 said they had been raped by another man.

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MRC speculates the alarming statistics spring from the country's inability to shake off traditional ideas about the way men and women should relate to one another. " I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It's rooted in an African ideal of manhood," said Professor Rachel Jewkes, who conducted the study's research. South Africa's Guardian & Mail notes that "Many [men] find it difficult to report such attacks to the police in subcultures where the concept of homosexuality is taboo."

Unfortunately, it's hard to know where to begin working for change in a country where supporters of new president Jacob Zuma protested outside the then-candidate's rape trial by proposing (in song) to "burn the bitch," his accuser. There should be aid and education, certainly, as well as an ample supply of female condoms to protect women from contracting HIV. But all of these Band-Aid solutions end up sounding like out-of-touch Western responses to a crisis that is years -- and perhaps generations -- away from subsiding.


Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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