Virgin Cleansing Myth – a Forgotten African Myth about HIV / AIDS

Source: IRIN

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. Today I would like to introduce you to a new project by ProMosaik e.V. about a forgotten African problem. It is a very complex socio-ethnic problem related to HIV and AIDS in Africa, the virgin myth. In this link you can read a very interesting article by Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala: VIRGIN MYTH

Most child rape perpetrators are not brought to justice and remain in the community.

25 April 2002 (IRIN) – In a country long-sickened by the level of
sexual violence, a shocking series of child rapes has stunned South
Africa and left people grasping for answers.

Among the theories
advanced to explain the phenomenon is the apparently accepted myth that
sex with a virgin cleanses one of HIV/AIDS. But that has ignited a
renewed controversy over whether the folk tale alone is behind the
sexual assaults against children that in some cases have been literally

The prevalence of sexual violence is reflected in the
stark statistics. According to the South African Police Services, 37,711
rape cases were reported to the police between January and September
2001: but they acknowledge that most rape survivors do not report to the
authorities. According to a study by the University of South Africa
(UNISA), one million women and children are raped annually.

recent survey conducted by UNISA at the Daimler Chrysler plant in East
London, found that 18 percent of the 498 workers questioned believed
that having sex with a virgin would cure HIV/AIDS.

A previous
study in 1999 by sexual health educators in Gauteng – the country’s
economic hub – found that 32 percent of the participants interviewed
indicated that they believed the myth.

However, researchers from
the Medical Research Council (MRC) disagree. They argue the folk tale
was not as widespread as commonly believed, and did not satisfactorily
explain child rapes.

“The idea that having sex with a virgin
cleanses you of AIDS does exist and there have been reported cases of
this as a motivating factor for child rape. But evidence suggests that
this is infrequently the case,” said Dr Rachel Jewkes, director of the
MRC’s Gender and Health Research Group.

Jewkes said agencies that
cared for sexually abused children found very little evidence suggesting
children were abused because of the myth.

Luke Lamprecht, the
manager for the Teddy Bear Clinic in Johannesburg – a referral point for
child sex abuse cases in the city – reported one child rape case where
the perpetrator believed the myth. This happened four years ago when the
child’s mother agreed that the HIV-positive man could rape her
four-year-old in exchange for cash, Jewkes told IRIN.

A South
African study investigating injury patterns and the management of child
rape, found a one percent sero-conversion rate among children who had
been raped. If the myth had played a part, a higher rate of
sero-conversion would be expected, she added.

According to Jewkes,
there was no evidence overall that infant rapes were increasing in
South Africa, nor that any of the recent infant rape perpetrators knew
they had HIV.

AIDS activist and rape survivor Charlene Smith,
disagrees. “If researchers actually bothered to do real research by
going to rape and abuse clinics who directly work with children raped,
you would find that the virgin myth is widespread in every community of
South Africa and spreading.”

Barbara Kenyon, director of the
Greater Nelspruit Rape Intervention Project (Grip) in the Northern
Province, said: “When we go out in the community and look at the rapes
that took place between 2000 and 2002, it is predominantly children, and
they are getting younger and younger.”

Follow-up visits done to
children who had been raped, found many of them had become HIV positive,
Kenyon said. “The myth is accepted in the community even by educated
people,” she added.

The link between the myth and child rape,
however, was difficult to prove, Julia Todd, director of Child Welfare
in the KwaZulu-Natal province told IRIN.

Most rape perpetrators
are not brought to justice. They remained in the community while the
child was the only witness and was often viewed as an unreliable one at
that, Todd said. Only 10 percent of the cases reported at police
stations reached the court system.

“Even then, there are very few
convictions,” she added. “Forensic evidence is often not preserved or
properly done, so there is no opportunity to discover the real reason
behind these rapes.”

But the children’s welfare organisation had
seen a considerable drop in the age of rape survivors over the last two
years, Todd noted. “When we are faced with more girls under 10 years
being raped, we need to look at the reason why,” she said.

In many
African cultures, illness is seen as a state of ritual, magical or
physical dirtiness with the process of healing described as “cleansing”.
Sex is regarded as a process of ritual cleaning in some contexts, for
example after bereavement or after Xhosa (a major ethnic group) male
initiation rituals.

“So, if people hear of the myth they may think
it sounds as if it could be true,” Jewkes said. But that did not
necessarily explain child rapes, she insisted.

Smith stressed that
rapists who acted on the myth, were “not necessarily monsters”. The
reason for the prevalence of virgin rapes was a lack of treatment for
the disease, she said. The rapists were desperate people, looking for
ways of treating themselves.

Information about access to treatment
should be readily available, to counteract such beliefs before they
were acted on, Smith said.