In South Africa, doctors, courts fight brutal AIDS 'cure'
May 19, 1999
From Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault
DURBAN, South Africa (CNN) -- South Africa's northeastern province of Kwazulu-Natal is blessed with a lush landscape -- and cursed with the country's highest AIDS rate.
The rolling hills and fertile valleys in the province of 8.5 million have spawned a myth of a terrible folk "cure" -- a story that says having sex with a virgin will rid sufferers of the disease. The widespread belief has left parents, children, doctors and the courts struggling with a wave of rapes, frequently of young girls.
Skhumbuza Mthembu, a 15-year-old peer counselor at a village primary school in Mpophomeni, says he has heard of the so-called cure from local men and boys. And he often hears firsthand about the results.
Those who have been victims tell horror stories about being raped by a teacher, or a brother, an uncle or even a father. They tell of being assaulted in restrooms, in the forest or the bush, or in bed while they were sleeping.
More and more stories like this are being told by younger and younger children across this province and elsewhere. But many, many more stories are not being told until it's too late.
Dr. Gillian Key treats sexually abused children at the Addington Children's Hospital in Durban, the harbor port of Kwazulu-Natal.
"Unless you see the children within an hour or one or two days, you're unlikely to find anything," Key said. "It's a pitiful thing."
Some of the children receive good news -- that they test negative for HIV. For another family, the news wasn't good.
One such child Key treated was raped when she was 2: She tested HIV-positive and now is developing full-blown AIDS.
"It's hard every day," said her mother, who asked that her family remain anonymous our of fear that her daughter would be stigmatized. "It's hard not knowing that one day she might not grow up."
In Durban, authorities have set up a special court to deal with child abuse cases. It's difficult to establish which rapes are connected to the cure myth, but prosecutors and other say the abuse of younger children since it began circulating has "skyrocketed."
Court officials try to ease the process for young victims who must testify. They provide separate rooms for them to testify on videotape so they don't have to face their abusers. But the fact that there are so many of them, coupled with their increasingly younger ages, makes it difficult to obtain convictions.
"The youngest we can put a child on the stand is three years and if we look for an actual trial date, it will be something like six months away," said Durban prosecutor Val Melis. "You can't count on a child to remember details like that that far down the line."
Meanwhile, back in Mpophomeni, teen counselor Mtembu holds another session to help youngsters cope with the trauma of rape -- and to teach them ways they can protect themselves.
But when asked what about that, one young girl answered: "We just have to cry loudly and hope someone will hear us."
Chat transcript: AIDS and other scares at CDC
National Center for HIV/AIDS Prevention
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