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Fighting the twin demons of HIV and rape

Comm 328: Human Rights in South Africa (2007)
Victoria Latto

Khayelitsha, South Africa

Outside a courthouse in this Western Cape township, women hold up signs with handwritten messages emblazoned on them in black marker.

"No bail for rapists, murderers," says one.

"Rapists deserve to die," reads another.

"Nandipha's spirit will always rest in peace," says a third.

The group of 50 adults and children is singing songs of protest and solidarity.

Their faces are etched with anger and determination. They say they will stay here as long as is necessary.

The demonstrators are demanding justice for 18-year-old Nandipha, who was recently gang-raped and killed in Khayelitsha, her body left in a public toilet.

Nandipha was an activist with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) formed in 1998 to deal with the massive problem of HIV/AIDS in Khayelitsha and elsewhere in the country.

"We just want the government to see that this is not right," says Fumana Ntlontlo, a counselor with TAC. "The community is tired."

Her community has a lot to be tired of. In South Africa, HIV/AIDS and rape are twin epidemics, with some of the world's highest rates of each. According to UNAIDS, between 15 percent and 20 percent of South Africans — about 5.5 million people — are HIV positive.

This number is approximately 2.5 times higher for women than men.

A South African woman is raped every six seconds, according to the Triangle Project, a Western Cape NGO focused on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. Since many rapes go unreported, it is difficult to obtain exact statistics. However, TAC and other organizations argue that gender-based violence is one of the highest causes of the spread of HIV.

Nandipha's murder mirrors that of Lorna Mlofana, another young Khayelitsha woman who volunteered at TAC and who was killed five years ago. Mlofana, who was HIV positive, disclosed her status after being gang-raped. She was then killed by her rapists, with little response from police.

It is a scenario all-too-familiar for TAC's Ntlontlo.

"Justice is failing some of us," she says, pointing to the long delays in getting trials, rapists and killers getting out on bail, and jail sentences for rapists being reduced to only two or three months.

But TAC refuses to take this. After Mlofana's murder, activists from the organization mobilized the community and campaigned for a trial that resulted in a life sentence for Mlofana's killers.

Twelve years ago, South Africa's new constitution guaranteed women full equality under the law, as part of the tumultuous transition from apartheid to democracy. But even though its Bill of Rights is one of the most extensive in the world, built on principles of human dignity, equality, and freedom, many women still face rampant rape and sexual violence.

At Simelela, a rape crisis center in Khayelitsha that partners with TAC, a woman's eyes look out hauntingly from a large black-and-white poster. "New South Africa?" asks the large, red-bordered letters. "Why are women still in the struggle?"

A Simelela pamphlet says that the rate of rape in Khayelitsha is one of the highest in the country. It also says that rates of reported rape throughout South Africa have gone up since the end of the apartheid regime.

But TAC counselor Ntlontlo says this does not mean there are more rapes happening than before. Instead, she says, it reflects the fact that more women are feeling empowered to report being raped.

Empowerment is something Ntlontlo knows about.

She was raped by a family member when she was only 8 years old. "I lost my self-esteem," she says. "I lost my dignity."

After being raped, Ntlontlo initially told no one. As she grew older, she says she dealt with the trauma by having sex with multiple partners. Eventually she contracted HIV.

"People think HIV is the killer, but it is nothing compared to rape," Ntlontlo says in a Simelela profile. "Being raped is like being killed. When I found out I was HIV positive I just thought, if I survived rape I can survive anything."

Today, Ntlontlo is open about her status as a rape survivor living with HIV, and counsels other women to speak out about their experiences. "The more I talk about it, the more I feel stronger," she says.

Sharing this strength is something of a calling for Ntlontlo. Originally, she planned on being a lawyer, in order to protect young girls who had been victimized. But when she couldn't afford to continue with law school, she became a counselor at TAC.

"I just told myself that I need to help others," Ntlontlo says. "I never got the help when I was raped."

Today, Simelela and TAC both run campaigns to educate children about HIV as well as sexual abuse. Some of their outreach programs take place in primary schools. Pumezi Rumeyi, who works at TAC, says the organization is often asked why they talk about HIV with young children.

"Where do we think they are going to get HIV?" says Runeyi. She points to rape and incest as causes of child HIV infection.

In 2000, HIV-related illnesses accounted for about one third of under-five deaths, according to South Africa's Medical Research Council.

In Langa, another Western Cape township, a group of preschool children recite a chant at their teachers' prompting: "My body. My body is special. I love my body. No one can touch my body. No one can abuse my body."

Ntutu, an organizer at Simelela, says her organization focuses on making children aware of what cannot be done to them — and "empowering them to tell" if they are abused.

Fifteen years after her rape, Ntlontlo made the decision to open a case. However, she was told there was not enough evidence. "Which evidence do they want?" asks Ntlontlo bitterly.

Recently, a family friend of former vice president Jacob Zuma accused him of raping her. Zuma, who is now a leading candidate to replace Thabo Mbeki as president in 2009, testified that they had had consensual sex. He was eventually acquitted.

During the trial, the accuser was constantly harassed outside the courthouse by Zuma supporters. Taken into account during the testimony were her clothing and behavior.

Ntutu says that all too often women are blamed for being raped. She cites police and judges who claim that wearing a short skirt or going out at night is asking for trouble. One of the programs at Simelela focuses on training police to be sensitive to the needs of rape survivors.

The Zuma trial was further complicated by the fact that the accuser is HIV positive. Zuma said he thought would be protected from the virus because he showered after sex.

This is characteristic of the misinformation coming from some higher-up government officials surrounding HIV/AIDS.

The Zuma case has had "quite a chilling effect" on women reporting rape, says Jody Kollapen, head of South Africa's Human Rights Commission.

Other obstacles in the justice system include "poor investigation, failure to arrest suspects, inadequate bail conditions, lengthy delays before trial, dockets going ‘missing' and the harsh adversarial court environment," according to Simelela literature.

"We've been going to court and there's no progress," says Lungelo Yozi. Yozi, who works at TAC, says he got involved with the organization because both his mother and sister are HIV positive.

Kollapen believes that factors such as high unemployment, drugs and alcohol, and guns are part of what leads to the high incidence of violence against women. "A human becomes the object of this anger, this frustration," he says. "We know these things happen all the time."

Ntlontlo also says male unemployment is a factor in gender-based violence.

"People are not working, they're sitting there doing nothing," she says. She says unemployed men become frustrated when women won't talk to them, and some of them become rapists.

In Khayelitsha, unemployment is as high as 80 percent, according to the South African Minister of Safety and Security. Kollapen says he believes unemployment is higher for men than for women.

However, he says he is "not suggesting poverty leads to crime, because that would be a supreme insult to those who are poor."

Simelela and TAC agree. "It is not poverty that leads people to rape, but community attitudes towards women and sexual violence and it is these that must be changed," says Simelela literature.

According to the literature, men rape women to exert power, control, and ownership and because certain forms of rape are considered culturally acceptable.

The ABC system (abstain, be faithful, and condomise) is currently the leading method being taught to prevent HIV around the world. But a groundbreaking new type of HIV prevention, microbicides, is currently being developed.

Microbicides, which are not yet available, would be the only product other than condoms that protects against HIV. They would be applied topically in a form such as a gel, cream, or sponge.

Boniswa Seti says there was a conference about microbicides at TAC, where she works, in 2006. She says the new contraceptive "would help a great deal." Unlike condoms, microbicides do not require a partner's cooperation to use.

Microbicides could also benefit women who are already HIV positive, protecting them from re-infection, from other sexually transmitted infections, and from spreading HIV to their partners.

"It gives women — young women — power over their own choices," says Seti. Fumana Ntlontlo, meanwhile, is doing her part to give young women power.

Through her work at TAC, she says, "we are trying by all means to give the information that if you are raped you don't have to be quiet."

Ntlontlo says that although initially she felt her rapist had taken her dignity, she has realized that dignity is "like a tree; it grows back."

The one thing her rapist didn't take from her was the tree's roots.

As women, "we need to be strong," says Ntlontlo. "Sometimes not for ourselves, but for others."