New rape laws to help protect victims

After a protracted delay, South Africa’s tough new laws against sexual abuse will finally enter force on Sunday.

The Justice and Constitutional Development Ministry said on Friday that the Sexual Offences Amendment Act will help the country ”fight the scourge of sexual offences head-on” and will at last give greater protection to victims of sexual crimes.

For the first time, victims will be able to go to court to force their attackers to take Aids tests. An estimated 5,4-million South Africans are infected with HIV — the highest number of any country in the world.

More than 50 000 rape cases were reported last year, almost 150 per day. Based on reported cases alone, South Africa has 114 rapes per 100 000 people, compared with a rate of 32 rapes per 100 000 in the United States, according to police figures. Women’s rights groups estimate that only one in nine rapes is reported to police.

The definition of rape was until now narrow and outdated. Attacks on children, for instance, were often classified as indecent assault, not rape — even though the young are often targeted because of the mistaken belief that sex with a child can rid the body of the HI virus.

The new law says that sexual penetration by objects other than a penis is classed as rape — which usually is punished with a life sentence — rather than sexual assault, for which there are lesser sentences. For the first time, male-on-male sexual assault is classed as rape.

The new law introduces tougher measures to protect children and the mentally disabled from sexual exploitation and child pornography. It also sets up a register of sexual offenders so that schools and other institutions dealing with children can vet candidates for jobs.

The Bill was approved by Parliament before it went into recess last month after being held up for more than a year because of technical legal problems over the clauses about compulsory HIV tests for sexual offenders.

The revised legislation said all victims should be entitled to apply for a court order to compel the alleged sex offender to take an Aids test, and should get free medication immediately after the rape to reduce the risks of contracting the virus. Given the delay in HIV infection showing up in tests, many women currently face weeks of agonised uncertainty over whether their attacker carried the deadly virus.

The provisions on Aids testing will take effect in March because of the legal complexities involved, the ministry said. — Sapa-AP

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