LUSAKA, Sept 29 (AFP) - Growing numbers of girls in poverty-stricken Zambia are being raped by men who believe that having sex with minors can cure HIV/AIDS.
Just about every day police in this southern African country record one incident of child rape. An estimated one in five people here test positive for HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.
"It is becoming unbearable," says Brenda Muntemba, a police spokeswoman.
Police have handled more than 200 cases of child rape in the second quarter of 2003, Muntemba says. Many of the alleged culprits are now being prosecuted.
But the figures could be far higher.
"For every case published, there are (probably) 10 other unheard ones," says Doctor George Mangwende, a private doctor who has treated some of the affected girls.
Child rape has become a burning issue in Zambia following the death this month of 11-year-old Nyarai Seke. She died from multiple sexually-transmitted diseases contracted after she was raped by her step-brother.
Seke has become a symbol of the plight of many young girls in Zambia. Her case has been headline news for the last two weeks.
Touched by her story, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda has vowed to take up the fight against the abuse of young girls.
"Defilers need to be punished. We can't tolerate this kind of behaviour," Kaunda said this month. He paid Seke a visit in hospital a day before she died and openly wept at her condition.
"Raping young girls will not heal the HIV virus. I will have to take up this campaign now," Kaunda said.
Seke's step-brother has since been arrested and charged with murder and child defilement.
This is the first time in Zambia that a person has been charged with murder for having infected somebody with a killer disease.
Others are following Kaunda's lead.
Leading opposition lawmaker Edith Nawakwi recently promised to move a motion in parliament to enact a stiff law against men found guilty of child rape.
"We need to protect our children and I will come up with a bill in parliament when we resume in November," said Nawakwi.
Members of civil society are calling for tough penalties -- including castration for convicted child rapists.
Joyce Nonde, the president of the Federation of Free Trade Unions of Zambia (FFTUZ), has organised a march during which a petition calling for stiffer penalties for rapists will be delivered to the government.
"We want to petition government to take this matter very seriously. We can't sit and watch girls being infected with various sexual diseases and nothing is being done," said Nonde.
Young schoolgirls are expected to take part in the march, set for Friday in the capital Lusaka.
Amid growing public anger, prominent figures are finding that they cannot escape prosecution.
Last week, police announced that they were investigating a well-known traditional chief alleged to have raped a 14-year-old girl.
Other prominent people accused of child rape include a government district administrator and a Roman Catholic priest. Both are currently on trial.
Traditional healers too have come under the spotlight. They are often blamed for spreading the myth that sex with a young virgin can cure HIV.
"We have been educating our members not to mislead people that there is a cure for HIV/AIDS," Rodwell Vongo, the president of the Traditional Healers Practitioners of Zambia, said recently.
Vongo however argued that traditional healers were not the ones telling their clients to rape young girls.
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