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Rape culture condemned in South Africa

/ Source: The Associated Press

Dumisani Rebombo wasn't circumcised, did chores considered girls' work and was sick of being taunted for not being a man. So at age 15, he took the only course considered "manly" in his rural South African village: He raped a girl.

Twenty years later he searched for the woman to beg her forgiveness — a rarity in a nation where a culture of sexual violence is deeply embedded in society.

Rebombo agreed to share his story with The Associated Press on Thursday as researchers presented findings at a conference on sexual violence that show more than one in four South African men surveyed admitted to committing rape.

"Rape is an expression of male sexual entitlement," said Rachel Jewkes, chief researcher for the survey conducted by the government-funded Medical Research Foundation. "South Africa is an immensely patriarchal society. The history of the country has shaped the dominant forms of South Africa's racially defined masculinities."

Cultural roots of sexual violence
Many human rights activists were not surprised by the survey's findings, saying they underscore the deep cultural roots of sexual violence in a country blighted by crime and the devastating emotional, social and economic legacy of apartheid's brutal racial segregation.

"This tells the story of many boys, of many men," said Rebombo, who is now 48 and works in community outreach to try to raise awareness of and prevent sexual abuse.

A recent report published by Interpol says South Africa has the highest incidence of rape among its member states. Some 54,000 rapes were committed in 2006, according to police statistics — nearly 150 per day, or one for every 925 people in the country.

And that does not tell the whole story: advocates say many attacks go unreported because of the stigma associated with rape. By comparison, Americans reported one rape for every 2,642 people in 2006 — roughly a third of the South Africa rate.

For Rebombo, rape was a means to prove his manhood.

As a teen, he said he was cruelly taunted because he was not circumcised. Circumcision is considered a rite of passage in some tribes — but his father had almost died as a result of the unsanitary and brutal procedure, and swore his son would not be abused that way.

So Rebombo was subjected to daily, constant jeering.

"I was viewed as not man enough," said the large, soft-spoken man.

Peer pressure involving girls
Other boys pressured Rebombo to "teach a lesson" to one teenage girl who did not want to go out with them. He resisted at first, fearful of his religious parents and their good standing in the community. Then he relented.

On that Saturday, Rebombo was plied with beer and marijuana to overcome his nerves. "I had difficulty breathing," he said. "I had never had sex before. I was terrified."

The girl was brought to a field and Rebombo and another boy were left with her, he said.

The other boy "started raping her. She fought him. I was just there, dizzy with all the stuff. He just stood up and said: 'Your turn.' I was there on top of her," he said.

Afterward, "she just ran home."

Guilty, and fearful she would tell, he avoided the girl and a year later moved to another village.

Heard other tales of abuse
Years later, while working in Johannesburg counseling unemployed mothers about HIV prevention in 1996, he was struck by the women's tales of abuse.

"That forced me to do my own introspection," he said. "I felt I needed to go find her and apologize."

So he went back to his village and tracked down the woman he had raped. "I told her what I did those years back was wrong, and I am here to ask for forgiveness."

Through sobs, she told Rebombo she had since been raped by two other men. Married with children, she kept the assaults secret, but sometimes cringed when her husband touched her. Her life had never been the same, she said.

She accepted Rebombo's apology and forgave him. "She told me: 'Maybe you could teach other men out there not to do the same thing.'"

Today, Rebombo works for the Olive Leaf Foundation, a South Africa-based development group, trying to do just that. He counsels men, women and children in an effort to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexual abuse.

"If more men would stand up and say 'This is wrong,' the better we can fight this carnage," said Rebombo, the father of two daughters, aged 16 and 27, and a 24-year-old son.

'Ideas about manhood'
Rape in South Africa is "deeply embedded in ideas about manhood," according to the survey presented Thursday at the conference outside Johannesburg. Initial results, released last month, showed that nearly 28 percent of the men interviewed said they had forced a woman or girl to have sexual intercourse against her will.

Jewkes said the survey results showed rape in South Africa was "significantly associated" with childhood trauma and a breakdown of the family.

Researchers, who gave no margin of error, interviewed men from some 1,700 households from a representative cross-section of the population in South Africa's Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

Only a third of the men in the sample said their fathers were often or always at home, while two-thirds said their mothers were.

"We know that if children are being raised by relatives they are much more vulnerable to being abused," Jewkes said, adding that 60 percent of women who report rape were assaulted by someone they knew; with children this figure was as high as 80 percent.

Researchers acknowledged the sexism inherent in most cultures but highlighted the strong patriarchal nature of African culture.

In South Africa, some blame the rape statistics on the poverty and oppression of the apartheid regime that ended 15 years ago.

"Apartheid made violence an instrument of control and violence became the norm," said rights activist Mbuyiselo Botha. "Men would feel emasculated." Angry and humiliated, they took out their frustrations on the weakest victims, women and children, he said.

Millions infected by AIDs virus
Some 5.2 million of South Africa's 50 million people are infected with the AIDS virus — the highest rate in the world.

President Jacob Zuma, an avowed polygamist with three wives, was acquitted of rape in 2006, but only after he acknowledged having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend.

Zuma's remarks about women, sex and Zulu culture caused major controversy and there were ugly scenes outside the courtroom with his supporters burning pictures of the woman.

While Zuma now speaks out against violence against women, the trial did "tremendous damage" to efforts to encourage more modern attitudes toward women, Botha said.

Daily headlines point to botched rape investigations and humiliation for women who do press charges.

On Monday, the daily newspaper The Star carried a front-page story about a convicted rapist given a four-year jail sentence.

The judge said he was being lenient because the perpetrator was "well-educated" and his victim was "a grown-up woman" who had been hitchhiking.