Rape and HIV/AIDS: a double barrel

18 November 2002
NOVEMBER 25 is the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women: an apt time to reflect on the violence and rape prevalent in South African society, writes Emma Durden from the HIV/AIDS Unit.

There are a number of issues that cloud the rape statistics in this country. This includes the narrow definition of rape under South African law (excluding the rape of men, and rape with objects) and the fact that rape is dramatically under-reported. This could be attributed to stigma, fear of retaliation by the perpetrators, limited access to police stations and other factors.

Based on the conservative estimate that only one in every twenty rapes is reported (the SAPS suggests that it could be as few as one in 35), figures suggest that around 3 000 South Africans are raped every day. By anybody's reckoning, this is unacceptably high.

South Africa is marked by a culture of violence that is exacerbated by the legacy of apartheid and poverty. This violence has become sexualised, resulting in a high precedence of rape, where violence is directed against women and girls. The gender inequalities that we are heir to, a culture of male sexual entitlement and a climate of relative impunity in which rape is perpetrated are all factors that account for the high number of rapes.

The traumatic assault of rape may have far-reaching psychological and physiological implications, and these are heightened by the very real threat of HIV infection.

In Western Cape public hospitals, a rape survivor can get free access to post-exposure prophylaxis (the anti-retroviral drugs AZT and 3TC) that can prevent HIV infection. It is important that these drugs are taken as soon after the rape as possible, (preferably between six and 24 hours afterwards) but they may be taken up to 72 hours after the incident.

Men and women who are raped will also be given antibiotics against possible infection with other sexually transmitted diseases, and women will be given emergency contraception. All of these drugs are available at both Groote Schuur Hospital and JG Jooste, and may be accessed without having to report the rape to the police. This information may save a life.

As we speak more openly about rape and sexual assault, the associated stigma may be reduced, and rape survivors more comfortable to report the rape. A higher incidence of reporting may lead to more arrests and convictions, and more severe penalties for rapists. As the topic of rape moves more into the public sphere, so awareness grows, and we hope that more people will take it seriously as an issue that deeply affects South African society as a whole.

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