Rape capital of the world fights back

HARD-HITTING television commercials featuring a South African film star have broken a generations-old taboo and got the country talking about rape - a crime believed to be committed here at an approximate rate of one every 20 seconds.

In the advertisements, Charlize Therone, who played a supermodel in Woody Allen's Celebrity and starred opposite Bill Paxton in Mighty Joe Young, addresses date-rape and tries to dispel the belief that sexual violence is macho.

Every year, 50,000 South African women report that they have been raped and a further 17,000 are murdered in the course of sexual attacks. These are the highest figures in the world. The rate is 10 rapes for every 1,000 population per year, compared with 3.9 cases per 1,000 in the US.

Rape Crisis centres say the real figure is higher. They estimate that 900,000 women and 600,000 children are raped each year but do not report it.

"We are talking about more deaths than in a war like Kosovo. This is an national emergency," said Jane Raphael, a magazine editor who, with colleagues, set in motion a media-wide initiative, including the commercials, to get people talking about rape.

The commercials, shot in English and Afrikaans, have led to an increase in calls to rape crisis centres.

"The adverts have got people talking and have made it clear that rape is not just a women's issue. It should be a men's issue," said Bronwyn Pithey, legal adviser at Rape Crisis in the Western Cape. Since the ads, we have had several men admit they've `been close to that' or that they know someone who `has been in that situation'. I think these are men who may have realised for the first time that what they did amounted to rape."

Not only is rape deeply taboo but it is widespread, especially in townships where it is sometimes used as an initiation rite by gangs. Aids counsellors report cases of HIV-positive children, infected by adults who believe that sex with a virgin will cure them.

Ms Pithey added: "Most people see it as a form of sex, not as a violent crime. Women in townships, for whom the first experience of sex often happens through rape, see it as an inevitable part of life. Their view is `why talk about it?'."

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