C A P E T O W N, South Africa, July 30, 2002 -- She was too young to walk or talk — yet she was a victim of an unspeakable crime. Baby Tshepang, a nickname meaning "have hope," was brutally raped last October when she was 9 months old. The nickname was given to her at the hospital where she was treated.
Her rapist, David Potse, was sentenced last week to life in prison for what the judge called the most gruesome violation of human rights he has ever ruled on.
It took hours of delicate surgery to repair the damage.
"I was really horrified because the nature of the injury must have been a very destructive painful injury," said Dr. Heniz Rhode of Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town. "She was really torn open. There was no normal anatomy present."
Tshepang was raped in a dingy room in a poor township in South Africa's Northern Cape called Louisvale. Potse struck while the baby was sleeping on her bed.
Tshepang's grandmother, who didn't want her name used, found the child crying uncontrollably. "I put her on the bed and I saw all this blood and I said this child has been raped," she recalled. Wiping away tears, she said she will never forget that night.
Doctors say the pain would have been too much to bear and that in all likelihood the baby lost consciousness during the rape.
Protesting an Urban Myth
The attack has triggered outrage across the country and a renewed call for the death penalty, which was abolished in South Africa in 1994.
It also focused attention on a frightening myth prevalent in parts of Africa, including South Africa: that AIDS or HIV can be cured by having sex with a young, virginal child.
Blood tests appear to indicate that Baby Tshepang's attacker was HIV-positive.
"When we now arrest a person, the person will be telling us exactly the same thing — that he thought by sleeping with a child of 2 to 5 years old will then cure the HIV/AIDS disease," said Daniel Sono, a policeman with a child protection unit near Cape Town. He says sexual abuse of the very young has risen sharply in the past two years.
Reuters reported that 21,000 cases of child rape were reported to police last year.
Long History of Abuse
Unemployment and the legacy of apartheid's oppressive system are also blamed for the spate of attacks, some South African observers say. Baby Tshepang's case only focused attention on a serious problem that has been around for years.
According to police figures, some 15 percent of all rapes are committed against children under the age of 11, but only 9 percent of the cases yield convictions.
Law enforcement agencies say it's virtually impossible to police child abuse and win convictions against child rapists.
Police inspector Roland Rhoode says he's often frustrated by the legal system.
"Our system gives the [perpetrator] a lot of rights. That is the right to a fair trial and that is frustrating because we have victims that are real," he said. "We have children that also have rights and their rights have been violated."
The government offers little in the way of solutions, but has promised to establish a task force to search for answers that might help young girls.