The devastating link between HIV/AIDs, child sexual abuse and women’s rights in South Africa
My first day as a volunteer at Operation Bobbi Bear in Amanzimtoti, a coastal town south of Durban, South Africa, began with an introduction to Bobbi Bear’s Edu-Toy programme, created by organisation founder Jackie Branfield. Edu-Toy is an innovative and interactive presentation designed to educate children of all ages about the nature of HIV/AIDs, how it is transmitted and how it can be treated. Using toys that represent blood, urine, semen/vaginal fluid/breast milk, the body’s various immune defences and the HIV virus, the demonstration explains what HIV/AIDs is in terms of how it operates in the body, how it is spread and how good health and hygiene practices can offer some protection, with rewards given to those children who answer questions correctly. Crucially, however, it also helps to uncover those children who may already be living with the disease and those who may be suffering sexual abuse at home – Bobbi Bear’s main remit. For example, if a young child is successfully able to identify what semen is and where it comes from, it is possible that they are being abused and have been infected, and so the Bobbi Bear team will take note and engage with the child after the presentation.
The Edu-Toy presentation is so effective in how it communicates a basic level of HIV/AIDs understanding that Jackie is often asked to give it to police and parliamentarians, all of whom she insists sit on the floor in front of her as the children do. Running though the full presentation with Jackie, I realised how little I knew about the disease. For example, contrary to what I had previously believed, there are in-fact a number of sub-types of HIV/AIDs. Of the major strain of HIV/AIDs (HIV-1 Group M) there are 11 sub types – A to K – many of which also combine and mutate into further sub-types. The dominant strain in South Africa (subtype C) behaves and is treated differently to that found in Europe (subtype B). This is why the disease is so difficult to contain and treat. Furthermore, I discovered that drugs exist to stop the disease spreading. Known as post exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, these drugs can halt HIV/AIDs in its tracks if they are administered within 72 hours of initial exposure, with around an 80% success rate.
For those living with HIV/AIDs, the medication used to treat the disease, known as antiretrovirals, or ARV’s, are made available by the state. Despite this, a number of factors limit their effectiveness in South Africa; not least of these is the stigma the disease still carries which means many deny they are infected and so will not seek help. For those that do seek help, education around how to take ARVs is lacking and so many patients will take them until they feel better then stop until symptoms return, limiting the long term benefits. Then of course there is access to clinical facilities, which is not always available to those living in the remotest areas. These challenges mean that almost one in five adults in South Africa is HIV positive, while almost 1,000 people die daily of AIDs related causes. The disease’s link with child sexual abuse is sadly a strong one, as a belief persists among some communities that sex with a virgin will cure the disease.
Child abuse and women’s rights: breaking the silence
Notwithstanding the above, however, it is important to state that child sexual abuse is a crime in South Africa; if convicted perpetrators receive a prison sentence, and thanks to the efforts of organisations like Bobbi Bear, this is increasingly the case. During my visit to a local police station with Bobbi Bear child safety officer Mildred, I learned that – just like pedophiles in the West – perpetrators in South Africa tend to groom their victims over a period of time, building their trust until they feel they can commit the crime with relative ease and secrecy. And again, just as anywhere else in the world, the perpetrator is usually a family member or close friend, meaning that breaking down the wall of silence within a family desperate to conceal the crime so as to hold families and communities together remains the biggest challenge. However, in a country where women remain subordinate to their husbands socially and economically, South African women – particularly those within the Zulu and Xhosa communities – do face more obstacles than those in the West when it comes to confronting an abusive father, husband or brother.
Up until 1998, South African law applied what was known as the Cautionary Rule to testimony from women. According to Jackie, this essentially meant that the accusations and testimony of women was only half believed by police and the courts, and certainly subject to far more scrutiny than that from men. In the case of children, a ‘double’ Cautionary Rule was applied, meaning the child was essentially guilty until proven innocent. The law was most frequently applied to rape cases. Thanks to the tireless efforts of African activists like Jackie, this practice is no longer recognised in law; however, this attitude continues to persist in police questioning, with the Bobbi Bear team often needing to remind officers that they are breaking the law if they apply it. This complex web of familial ties, social and economic dependency and reduced credibility in the eyes of the law often keeps women and children from reporting the crimes of their male family members, neighbours and friends.
The link between HIV/AIDs, women’s rights and child sex abuse became increasingly clear to Jackie from her work in these areas beginning in the early 1990’s, when HIV/AIDs was considered to be a disease born of and transmitted exclusively by women. This meant women often suffered in silence or were cast out of their communities, leading Jackie to set up a women’s clinic that offered help, advice and basic medical care to affected women and their children. This clinic continues to operate under the shade of an Illovo tree close to the Bobbi Bear centre every Friday morning, with a dedicated children’s clinic on Saturday mornings where, again, children receive basic medical care, food and toys – all donated by local businesses and more fortunate communities. Crucially, these clinics help the Bobbi Bear team to stay connected to local communities, building both hope and trust among women and children who continue to need their support and assistance in a world often hostile to them.
For the opportunity to support Operation Bobbi Bear and volunteer with them