Could this protect hundreds of children from being raped?

Pupils who received a 12-hour course on issues such as HIV, gender and myths about rape were less likely to be a victim of rape — or a perpetrator, a new study shows.

More than 40% of primary school pupils in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha have experienced sexual violence, according to a recent Human Science Research Council survey.

To find out whether school-based programmes could help to put a stop to rape among pupils, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania enrolled more than 1 000 grade six pupils at 18 Eastern Cape schools in their study. About half of the pupils took part in a 12-hour programme called “Let us protect our future” that addressed risk factors for HIV such as sexual violence. These pupils took part in comic book workshops, group discussions and role-playing games in which they practised refusing sex by, for instance, stomping their feet and shouting “No!”

The other half of the study participants received lessons on general wellness, which included HIV information but also looked at diet and exercise. Both initiatives were conducted in isiXhosa.

Scientists found that pupils — both boys and girls — who participated in the “Let us protect our future” course were significantly less likely to report having raped someone even five years after the programme had ended. Published in the journal JAMA Network Open, the study was the first large-scale randomised controlled clinical trial at a community level to have success in reducing the risk of rape among adolescents.

In studies like these, participants are randomly assigned to groups for the purpose of comparing their outcomes. Since people are separated at random, characteristics such as gender, age or location that could have a bearing on the study’s outcome should be equally present in both groups. Because of this, randomised controlled clinical trials are better at determining cause and effect than other types of studies and are often called the “gold standard” in research.

Researcher John Barton Jemmott III credits part of the study’s success to working with the community to find culturally appropriate ways of talking about sex.

“We met with some linguists at the University of Fort Hare and they suggested that we use English words for sexual anatomy because these were more acceptable than isiXhosa words for sex. Like if we’re discussing the penis, we have to say i-penis,” Jemmott explains.

“[If] you take into account the views and experiences of the community, [programmes] can have very long-lasting effects on the youth.”

Watch: When and where people rape

The research also found that boys had a much higher chance of being both victims and perpetrators of rape. Although researchers did not ask boys who had forced them to have sex, perpetrators were likely to be women, Jemmott says.

“We were very careful in defining what we meant by sex. So we defined sex as vaginal intercourse … which would imply that the perpetrators were women in the case of boys.”

A 2016 study conducted in the Johannesburg township of Diepsloot by the University of the Witwatersrand and the social justice organisation Sonke Gender Justice shows that boys who have been sexually abused are five times more likely to become sexual violence offenders in the future.

Girls and particularly boys who were in the “Let us protect our future” programme were less likely to report having been sexually assaulted.

At the start of the study, only 4% of pupils surveyed had engaged in any kind of sex. A year later, one in five pupils had been sexually active, leading Jemmott to recommend that culturally appropriate sexual education start in Grade 6.

Jemmott argues that programmes that change people’s attitudes about sex, particularly consent, are essential to South Africa’s fight against HIV. The country’s current national HIV plan seeks to reduce new HIV infections by more than 60% between 2017 and 2022, particularly among young women.

“Being forced to have sex means that you don’t have control, so you are unable to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases, whether it’s HIV or gonorrhoea — or even [prevent] pregnancy.” 

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Nelisiwe Msomi
Nelisiwe Msomi

Nelisiwe Msomi is a Junior journalist at Bhekisisa. She holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Johannesburg. 

Previously, Msomi was a volunteer member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s media team and started off her career as an intern at Bhekisisa.

She has an interest in how government policies affect the ordinary person walking on Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Bridge and hopes to one day find a solution to long 6 am clinic queues.

"I have always seen journalism as a means of making the world a better place. Being part of Bhekisisa allows me to do just that, especially through the practice of solution based journalism. I believe that the work we do as journalist paves the path for better service delivery in our continent," she says.

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