Department admits that rapists are targeting mentally challenged children but strategies to protect them, including in courtrooms, are virtually non-existent. Photo: Bongiwe Mchunu

The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities has acknowledged a “horrific spate” of persistent sexual abuse of children with intellectual disabilities.

Although they could not quantify the incidents, the department said the abuse often went un-reported, adding that even when victims spoke out they were unlikely to be taken seriously.

Department spokesman Tanana Monama said: “We’ve heard from many women with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities that often when they relate personal experiences or report violence or abuse, they are often not believed or even turned away because of the difficulty in communications.”

“We believe that our criminal justice needs to be capacitated to ensure that it is able to handle cases of people with disabilities more effectively.”

Two recent incidents, involving two mentally disabled children who were sexually abused in Soweto, brought the plight of disabled children to the forefront.

Recently, a teenage girl from Bramfischerville, Soweto, was gang-raped and the incident captured on video.

Days later a woman and a girl were arrested for the rape of a 17-year-old mentally challenged boy.

Among those who called for harsher sentences for such abusers was the chairman of the portfolio committee on social development, Yolanda Botha.

She welcomed life imprisonment for a man who sodomised his mentally disabled friend in Limpopo.

“Handing down harsher sentences for these crimes will certainly warn others out there who might have the same intentions of taking advantage of the disabled.

“They would see that the law doesn’t play; it takes these crimes seriously and deals with them decisively,” Botha said.

Tshwaraganang Legal Advocacy Centre executive director Lisa Vetten said intellectually disabled children are being targeted by rapists because they may not be believed or are seen to be weak witnesses in court.

“Intellectually disabled rape victims should be prepared for court so that they can also see justice,” Vetten said.

She said their mental functioning would need to be assessed so it could be determined how much help they’d need in court.

“Cape Mental Health is so far the only organisation with programmes that helps intellectually disabled victims in preparing them for court.”

Vetten said she was baffled by a North West court decision in which an alleged rapist was freed on bail for allegedly sexually abusing a 10-year-old epileptic girl, who is also his neighbour.

The girl’s family claimed the suspect has previous convictions for murder and rape.

Vetten said: “Prosecutors need to explain why he was granted bail – lessons should be taken from the case of Mamokgethi Malebane.”

Seven-year-old Mamokgethi from Katlehong in the East Rand was throttled to death and buried in a shallow grave by her neighbour, Daniel Mabote, 31, in 1997. When he committed the murder Mabote had been on bail on a charge of raping Mamokgethi.

“Unfortunately, the police and courts are not learning from such incidents where a suspect was released on bail without considering others’ safety.

“In cases where such people commit other offences while out on bail, then the state would have failed to protect,” Vetten said.

A legal expert at the Commission for Gender Equality, Victor Mavhidula, said there were a number of possibilities that often led to bail being granted to suspects in rape cases of disabled children.

“It depends on whether the prosecutor and police opposed bail and on what grounds.

“If the suspect has previous convictions of rape I don’t know how he could have been granted bail, when this carries so much weight in opposing bail, unless police did not bring this information to the court’s attention.

“The public’s interest, including how the community and the family feels about the suspect being freed on bail, should also be considered.

“If the suspect lives in the same neighbourhood as the victim then it goes without saying that his release won’t be good for the victim, who may even be afraid to go to court at a later stage.”

Mavhidula said another possibility may have been there was not enough evidence against the suspect, but said it was “wrong he was granted bail and no one bothered to inform the family”.

Lizel van Eeden, from Maatla a Bana, an anti-child abuse organisation, said investigating sexual crime cases needed the police and courts to rely on other evidence.

“These child victims may often not be excellent witnesses but medical evidence is very important.

“A professional witness can also be brought in to testify on the child’s behalf, particularly on the health or psychological impact the incident has had on the victim,” Van Eeden said.

“Police are also expected to oppose bail citing tangible evidence against the suspect.

“These are specialised cases that need specialists’ involvement in working towards a conviction and investigating officers also need to go the extra mile to ensure this,” Van Eeden said.

The Star Africa