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Shocking child rape statistics

Cases of child rape are on the increase, courtesy of the myth that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS.
Rodrick Mukumbira

Botswana's last month statistics suggesting that between January and April 34 children were raped have sparked the need for new laws protecting children from any form of abuse.

The statistics have also provoked the need to revisit the country's strategies of combating a high incidence rate of HIV as they point accusingly at the role of traditional healers.

Unveiling the statistics on 21 may, Bonang Pheto, asocial worker with the children rights support organisation, Childline, described them as "shocking" for a country with a population of 1.6 million. She said most of the victims were aged between six months and seven years. "These statistics show the need for immediate action by the authorities," she said.

Pheko, whose organisation offers counselling to both child rape and other forms of abuse victims and their parents, said Childline is now counselling about five victims every month and this she said pointed to the fact that rape is on the increase.

"Most of the cases we have tackled point to the activities of traditional healers," she said. "We now have to come up with ways of countering people who believe in such myths as having sex with a virgin cures AIDS in order to protect the children," The children's rights organisation also recorded two sexual harassment and five incest cases during the period.

Motshidisi Boranabi of the Botswana Police Services' public relations department however attributes the increase in child rape statistics to the fact that people are now empowered and reporting perpetrators to the law enforcing agencies. "It might not actually be an increase, but an increase in the number of reported cases," he says.

Boranabi says most child rape cases usually happen within family circles. "In the past relatives were not willing to report such cases, but now they have started doing so." He says in April police carried out a survey in efforts to identify why child rape was increasing. Paedophilia was identified as one of the cases, but it was not the major cause of the crime. "The survey also shows that orphanaged children are the most vulnerable to rape”, says Boranabi.

In April, a packed courtroom in Maun, a small town in northwestern Botswana, was shocked by a mother's revelations of how her three-year-old daughter was raped by her live-in boyfriend who had been advised by a traditional healer to have sexual intercourse with a virgin to cure a certain ailment.

"It is hard for me to believe that he had already laid his greedy eyes on my daughter and now her life is destroyed forever," said the mother as tears, that were welling down her cheeks nearly choked her voice. The case had to be referred to the High Court in Lobatse, a small town south of the capital Gaborone.

In a country with a great Christian outlook but where the majority believe in traditional healers and medicine, Childline's Pheto says it is high time the country carried out an audit on the role of traitional healers. She calls for a nation-wide intensive campaign on children's rights.

The government, with funding from the American government, is waging a war against the pandemic whose rate of incidence is said to be highest in southern Africa.

Much has been achieved in fighting stigma and discrimination. Campaigns are underway to encourage HIV testing. In January the government introduced routine HIV/AIDS testing in health centres and has been providing antiretroviral drugs to those with the virus since 2001.

Peter Tsukudu of the women rights support group, Emang Basadi (Women are the light in English), says the anti-AIDS campaign has not targeted children as a vulnerable group. "Children are the main victims of the pandemic. They have been orphaned by the pandemic and now the latest - that children are the cure to a virus that has rattled science," he says, adding that the pandemic has sparked an advent of people offering false hope to those infected with the virus.

He says the campaign has marginalised on traditional doctors whose role is acceptable to many Batswana, and without proper monitoring of their (traditionsl healers) role, loopholes to abuse children emerge.

Monthusi Sekonopo of the Botswana Dingaka Association, an association representing traditional healers, says members of his organisation adhere to professional standards. "People who tell others about the myths of virgin cure are not allowed to be members of our association, but one is not always sure what advise clients are given within our membership," he says.

He blames some traditional doctors for acting "irresponsible" as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned and argues for an awareness campaign aimed at educating people to guard against being duped by "some" unscrupulous traditional healers into believing in the 'virgin cure' myth. "Raping a child and infecting her with HIV is a cruel and unnatural practise. Traditional healers and government authorities should join forces to stamp out this obnoxious practice," he says.

In February the government reviewed the justice system and this saw the maximum sentence for rape being increased to life imprisonment. The minimum sentence is 15 years. Rape suspects are not granted bail and are required to undergo mandatory HIV testing before trial and if found guilty the sentence can be heavier.

But Charles Tlagae, a legal adviser for Maun-based Women Against Rape, an organisation that offer counselling for rape victims together with arranging legal and medical assistance, says that while the review saw sentences for rape being increased they could have been effective if raping a child was given its own category with a harsher sentence.

He says harsher sentences could serve as deterrents. "It is evident that the penalties are not effective because people continue to rape," says Tlagae.

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