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Medical News

Rape of Girls in South Africa

February 4, 2002

Coerced sex in dating relationships, including forced sexual initiation, is not rare in sub-Saharan Africa. Results of a study in Cape Town, South Africa, showed that 72 percent of pregnant teenagers and 60 percent of teenagers who had never been pregnant had had coerced sex, but little research has been done on sexual abuse in earlier childhood.

In the 1998 South Africa Demographic and Health Survey, researchers assessed the frequency of rape in a nationally representative study of 11,735 women ages 15 to 49. Researchers selected women by multistage random methods who were stratified by province and urban or non-urban regions. The study complied with World Health Organization guidelines for research on violence against women, and every participant provided written informed consent.

Researchers asked women if they had been "forced to have sexual intercourse against their will by being threatened, held down, or hurt in some way" or "persuaded to have sexual intercourse when they did not want it." Women who responded that they had, were asked if these events had happened before the age of 15 years, in which case researchers concluded that they had been raped. The response rate for the survey was 90 percent.

Child rape violates human rights and causes immediate and long-term mental and physical health consequences for the child. 153 (1.6 percent, 95 percent CI 1.2-1.9 percent) of the women surveyed had been raped before age 15. Two (1.3 percent) of whom had been raped by gangs of three and ten men. 85 percent of the rapes took place against children ages 10 to 14 years, and 15 percent between 5 and 9 years. In the United States, 1.9 percent of women have reported rape or attempted rape before age 12, a finding close to that of this study. Younger women were significantly more likely to report rape than older women.

Schoolteachers were the most common child rapists and were responsible for 33 percent (95 percent CI 23-42 percent) of rapes. Relatives were also a major group (21 percent), as were strangers or recent acquaintances (21 percent), and boyfriends (10 percent). South Africa has only recently made sexual relations, consensual or otherwise, between staff and students a serious offence that results in dismissal of staff. Many countries do not have such legislation. Enforcement still presents a substantial challenge.

The role of schoolteachers in child rape has been reported in many other African countries. Through such abuse, a girl's body is violated as well as her right to an education. Not only is risk of HIV-1 transmission increased through the sexual act, but in many countries, child rape has increased the likelihood of unsafe sexual practices during later years, including having multiple partners, participation in sex work, and increase in risk of rape in adulthood. Intergenerational sex fuels the HIV-1 epidemic by providing foci of infection within every emerging age group, leading to transmission of the virus to peers once children reach the stage of consensual sexual activity. Many girls are forced to leave school because of pregnancies fathered by teachers and because of harassment by teachers. A girl's ability to reach her economic and social potential is thus reduced, and likelihood of subsequent dependency on sex for payment rises.

Educational status and type of residence were not associated with childhood rape, but ethnic origin (based on the apartheid-defined population categories), province, and age-cohort were. After adjustment for province and age, more white women reported rape than African women. Women in the Northern Cape, Free State, and North West reported rape significantly less often than those in the Western Cape (after adjustment for ethnic origin and age). Women were significantly less likely to report rape with increasing age. Age-by-province and age-by-race interactions were not significant.

Research suggests that child rape is becoming more common, and lends support to qualitative research of sexual harassment of female students in schools in Africa. In addition, findings from this study confirm that rape of girls, especially in school, is a substantial public health problem in South Africa. Research is necessary to understand its broader social context, nature, and magnitude, and to develop interventions for primary prevention and prevention of its long-term health consequences. Effective action to address rape and sexual harassment of girls in schools is needed.

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Adapted from:
01.26.02; Vol. 359; No. 9303: P. 319-320; Rachel Jewkes; Jonathan Levin; Nolwazi Mbananga; Debbie Bradshaw

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
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