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When the system betrays our children

This was supposed to be a weary and fairly snide thinkpiece lamenting the ridiculousness of having a Women’s Day, a Women’s Month, that is completely associated with pink and flowers and whatever other qualities are deemed appropriately womanly. (Apparently, this includes wearing a doek.)

Instead, I was reminded once again that I live in a place where the rapist of an 11-year-old girl can have his sentence reduced because his victim was judged to have been a “willing partner”.

You can keep your flowers and your spa vouchers and your damned headgear.

“The life sentence of a man who repeatedly raped a girl (11) he regarded as ‘a daughter’ was reduced on appeal by the high court in Pretoria because she seemed to be a willing partner”, the story went.

What kind of man wants to have sex, not just with a barely pubescent child, but with a girl he regards as a daughter?

“Molefe Joseph Mphanama’s life sentence was replaced with an effective sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment for his conviction on four rape charges.”

Twenty years for four charges of rape.

“Two judges said the girl had visited Mphanama out of her own free will after the first rape and her unwillingness to have sex was only shown when she closed her thighs, according to the report.”

Her “unwillingness to have sex”? She was 11. Eleven. Eleven!

Under South African law — not to mention common sense — a child of that age cannot consent to sex. She can in no way be a “willing partner”.

More specialised training in sexual offences for every aspect of our legal system is desperately needed. A few years ago, I wrote about a cluster of cases where men had their sentences reduced because the fact that the children they raped were their own and not somebody else’s was considered a mitigating factor.

Somehow, this incredible betrayal of trust, this utter dereliction of parental duty, was deemed not as bad as a stranger grabbing a child walking home from school.

These cases were in the first place quite extraordinary. A rapist had not only been arrested, he had been brought to trial and convicted. And then the system that was supposed to protect these young victims, to take seriously the trauma of sexual violence, taught them that what had happened to them had been not that bad.

It should be clear even to an indifferent observer that as the adults of this country, we are miserably failing our children. The shame of this will never entirely leave us.

At least we’re getting tough on rhino poachers. These days, we’re putting those bastards away for 77 years.