JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A cell-phone video of a 17-year-old girl being gang raped has gone viral in South Africa, in an incident that has shocked a country with one of the highest rates of rape in the world.
The 10-minute video shows a group of young men taking turns raping the girl, who is said to be mentally disabled. According to reports, she cries and pleads with them to stop, and at the end, they offer her 2 rand (25 cents) to keep quiet.
In a disturbing twist, the video was passed around by teenagers on social networks, and only came to light after a concerned mother alerted a local tabloid, which contacted police in Soweto township, southwest of Johannesburg.
The gang-rape video has elicited an outpouring of anger in South Africa, where horrifying stories about rapes of women, children and even babies are everyday news.
The women’s league of the ruling African National Congress party called the incident “sadistic,” and said it raises questions about South African society and the way boys are being brought up.
“When does it become acceptable amongst a group of peers to rape a girl and laugh about it? It just makes one sick to the stomach,” the women's league said.
A popular radio talk show host, Redi Tlhabi, broke down when discussing the incident on air. “I was too distraught & lost my composure,” she later wrote on Twitter.
A widely cited study from 2009 found that one in four South African men had admitted to rape, and most cases are never prosecuted. More than 66,000 rapes and other sexual assaults were reported for the year ending in March 2011, according to the latest police statistics.
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In a 2010 incident that provoked similar anger, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly raped by fellow students on the grounds of her Johannesburg high school, during school hours. Several students filmed the attack on their cell phones, and the video was circulated to other pupils and even teachers.
South Africa’s government has been roundly criticized for neglecting the epidemic of rape and violence against women. Critics say it is especially shocking that the government hasn’t done more because South Africa has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions when it comes to gender equality, and more than 40 percent of the country’s cabinet ministers are women.
After news spread Wednesday about the gang rape, the Twitter hashtag #rapevideo was a top trending term in South Africa all day, with tweets alternating between shock and disgust — and people wanting a link to the video.
Katy Katopodis, editor of South Africa’s Eyewitness News, chastised Twitter users for asking for the link.
"To those asking for the #rapevideo link that #EWN reported on today. Stop! Not happening! We'd never put it on our site. Illegal & wrong," she tweeted.
Related: South Africa: Gang rape video goes viral
South Africa’s Film and Publications Board warned that it is an offense to distribute or possess the video, which is considered child pornography.
The Daily Sun tabloid, which broke the story of the gang rape, published a screenshot taken from the video that shows the girl’s face, saying that it believed she was in danger and hoped to locate her.
The girl had been missing for more than three weeks before being found Wednesday in Soweto, and was possibly kept as a sex slave, the newspaper reported.
The girl’s mother, a domestic helper, told the Sun that her daughter had been a victim of rape since the age of 12, and has the mental capacity of a 4- or 5-year-old.
“People took advantage of her illness and because my family is poor,” she said.
Lulu Xingwana, the South African minister of women, children and people with disabilities, said she was confident the justice system “would impose the heaviest and harshest possible sentence” on those responsible for the gang rape.
"This despicable crime does not belong to our free and democratic society,” said Xingwana.
She added: “In addition to the painful ordeal of rape she was forced to endure, she is now subjected to a second assault on her dignity.”
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