HIV/AIDS may be to blame for an increase in child rape figures as well as increased rates of mortality among girls from as young as 15 years of age.
A doubling of child rape among girls under the age of 15 has occurred recently, a trend not seen in other forms of child assault, says a recently published report on rape in South Africa from the Medical Research Council (MRC).
Dr Rachel Jewkes of the MRC argues that, although there is no conclusive evidence to prove it, myths surrounding HIV may well be implicated in this growing trend towards child rape.
According to Jewkes, the false notion that having sex with a virgin (“virgin cleansing”) can cleanse a man of HIV, has wide currency in South Africa.
In workshops promoting sexual health in South Africa, a third of participants believed in “virgin cleansing”, says Jewkes.
This is not surprising when seen in the context of indigenous beliefs about illness as pollution and the role of purification in the process of healing, says Jewkes.
The extent to which men act on the belief that sex with a virgin cures HIV, and thus directly cause child rape, is unknown.
But according to Jewkes, there is a more obvious link between HIV and child sexual abuse.
“Probably a more prevalent problem is that the fear of HIV drives some men towards seeking very young partners in the belief that they are less likely to have the virus,” says Jewkes.
“There is definitely a situation where girls are having their first sexual experience younger than ever and having it with older partners,” agrees Warren Parker of the Beyond Awareness Campaign, who has conducted extensive research on youth sexuality.
Equally shocking is another MRC finding that death rates among 15-19 year old girls have increased by 50 percent over the last 10 years. According to David Bourne of the UCT School of Public Health, this rise can only be attributed to HIV/AIDS.
“There is no increased mortality among 10 ‘ 14 year olds girls. But from 15-19 years of age, mortality among girls is shooting up, while there is no equivalent rise in deaths among young men,” says Bourne.
Since it is extremely unlikely that these girls are long-term survivors who became infected as infants through mother-to-child-transmission, this increase in mortality has to be the result of child sexual abuse, says Bourne.
While HIV may progress to AIDS quite quickly in some cases, it takes at least four or five years before an HIV infection can cause a fatality.
“So,” asks Bourne in dismay, “if girls are already dying from the age of 15, when did they get HIV infected? At 9, at 10, at 11 and maybe at 12.”
There is no research that conclusively proves that HIV has motivated men to rape increasingly younger girls. But the connection between HIV and the sexual abuse of children nevertheless needs to be made public, says Sonja Giese of the Child Health Policy Institute.
“We know there are many HIV positive children who could only have become HIV infected through sex.”
“People need to know that sex with a child younger than 15 is not only statutory rape but also the cause of HIV infection so that they report child sexual abuse and ensure that these children get treatment to prevent HIV infection,” says Giese.
Gaby Cloete of Childline counsels many children who have been raped.
On top of the rape, the police, the physical examination and the court, these children must now also cope with the very real threat of HIV infection, says Cloete.
“It’s frightening doing pre-test HIV counselling with a child, and it’s especially horrible having to explain it all to kids under ten. We don’t want to create false hope, so we have to add this huge anxiety about HIV to what they already have to cope with, says Cloete.