CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - President Jacob Zuma launched an anti-rape campaign targeting South Africa’s 10 million schoolchildren on Thursday, an attempt to tackle some of the world’s highest levels of sexual violence in a country where many are inured to reports of such crimes.
Girls and boys suffer sexual abuse, bullying and rape in the classroom and playground on a regular basis, according to domestic media reports, and researchers say many youngsters do not know what is right and wrong.
“What we are launching today is not a women’s campaign. It is everybody’s campaign,” said Zuma, who was himself acquitted in a 2006 rape case while serving as deputy president.
Police and the justice system notoriously fail to do their part in protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators. Even when rape suspects are caught, only 12 percent of cases end in conviction. This month, a 2-year-old girl was raped by a man out on bail for two other sexual offences, local media reported.
The gang rape, mutilation and murder of a 17-year-old near Cape Town, also this month, sparked outrage, and calls for tougher penalties for offenders, including chemical castration.
The high-profile arrest of Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius for shooting his girlfriend - a model and gender activist - a week later added impetus to the drive, which also drew inspiration from the massive protests in India at the gang rape and murder of a woman on a New Delhi bus.
Last year, a 17-year-old girl in Soweto was gang-raped by seven men who recorded the incident on a cellphone video that then went viral. The seven are yet to stand trial.
“We have come together to say that these horrendous attacks must stop,” Zuma told a packed hall at Glendale Secondary School in Mitchell’s Plain, an impoverished township 25 km (15 miles) east of Cape Town.
From Friday, government schools will inform pupils at weekly assemblies about rape and other sexual crimes to discourage potential offenders and encourage victims to come forward.
There were 65,000 reported sexual assaults last year in South Africa, with young women the victims in the majority of cases. South Africa’s statistics agency has estimated that the country’s rape rate is the highest of all Interpol countries.
“There is a general perception that students do not know what rape or sexual harassment is,” said Tich Chikowore, head of LifeLine Southern Africa, which runs school outreach programs.
“The message must be inculcated at a young age, constantly, so that it resonates with them into adulthood.”
At 1,200-pupil Glendale Secondary, Zuma’s speech was greeted by clapping, nodding of heads and, in some, a determination to enforce the campaign’s ‘enough is enough’ tagline.
“You can say a pledge as much as you want, but we as young girls and women need to say ‘If you strike a woman, you strike a rock’,” said student Precious Gqirana, invoking a popular slogan used during the struggle against apartheid.
Editing by Louise Ireland and Ed Cropley