The Thuthuzela Care Centre is situated in a spacious but somewhat bare converted ward at the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital in Mdantsane, just outside East London. Established in 2001 as a ‘€œone stop’€ service for rape survivors, the centre sees about 38 new clients a month with an alarming 24 of these being children under the age of 12.

“We are seeing more and more child rape cases,” says Nosisi Nangu, a maternal figure who is Thuthuzela’€™s (which means ‘€œcomfort’€ in isiXhosa) coordinator.

“Most of the children have been raped by family members. We think there are many other cases that are not reported because the rapists are breadwinners,’€ she says.

Sibongile Cebekhulu, a young and outspoken victim assistance officer at the 24-hour centre says it seems as if today ‘€œchildren need to be afraid of their own fathers and uncles.’€

“Some fathers these days are animals. The things that we see are scary,” says Cebekhulu, who helps clients prepare for court and who accompanies them if necessary.

“I saw a 10-year-old girl recently. The child’s mother had passed away. She was no longer going to school because her father wanted her to be at home so he could rape her whenever he wanted to,” he recounts.

The staff is also concerned about the increase in children sexually abusing other children, and believes that these children must be witnessing abuse and rapes in their communities.

“A few weeks ago, we saw a four-year-old. She needed an operation because other children had put sticks in her vagina,” says Nangu, speaking slowly and softly as if trying to keep the horror of the little girl’s plight at bay.

“We have another recent case involving an 11-year-old boy who was sodomising other children. It turned out that the child had been sodomised himself. He is now in intensive therapy because you can’t send such a young child to court,” adds Cebekhulu.

Sister Nomalawu Mantantana from the Sinawe Rape Crisis Centre in Umtata, reports a similar trend in the area over the past few months.

“We notice that more children are being raped by other children, including gang rapes,” says Mantantana. “Some of these children said that they were just copying what they saw on the television,” she adds.

Thuthuzela workers say that the easy availability of drugs in Mdantsane, particularly mandrax, may also account for the rise in violent sexual behaviour among children.

“You can get mandrax anywhere, any time in Mdantsane and there is no control over the kids who are taking it,” says Cebekhulu.

However, she also stresses that attention needs to be given to “improving parenting skills in our communities as some children are playing alone far away from home when these things happen”.

The centre, which is an inter-departmental initiative staffed by nurses and psychologists from the health department, a prosecutor and victim support officers from the National Prosecuting Authority and police officers from the Family Sexual Offences Unit, has made a significant impact in the community.

“Cases usually take six months to be finalised now instead of two years,” says Amanda Smit, the senior public prosecutor who has been with the centre since July 2002.

She keeps a meticulous casebook listing every case and the progress that is being made in each.

“The conviction rate is improving steadily because the quality of evidence is improving, both through helping victims to prepare for court and the collection of forensic evidence,” says Smit.

The centre has opened 877 cases between August 2001 and mid-February 2004. This year it has launched an awareness campaign at schools to encourage children to report rape and to explain what evidence is needed to convict rapists.

“We need to tell people important things like that they are not to wash themselves or their underwear after they have been raped as we need to collect evidence,” says Smit.

Most rape survivors are brought to the centre by the police. They are examined first by a forensic nurse who collects evidence and offers counselling. The police then take a statement, after which the survivors are offered an HIV test and medication to prevent infections and pregnancy.

Those who are not already HIV positive are offered antiretroviral drugs for 28 days to try to prevent HIV transmission. This is known as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

However, a number of rape survivors fail to complete the PEP course as they lack transport money to get to the centre.

“There are times when the work is hard,” admits the no-nonsense Smit. “I have seen some bad cases involving young children. It becomes especially bad if the victims become HIV positive, which happened with one 15-year-old girl I dealt with recently.”

The centre is open from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week while the police are on call 24 hours a day.

* If anyone can assist the Thuthuzela Care Centre with donations of toys and refreshments for its clients and funds for transport, they can contact it on (043) 708 2526.