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South Africa, once called ‘the world’s rape capital,’ is running out of rape kits

Residents protest outside a court in Bredasdorp where two men accused of raping a teenage girl appeared in mid-February. (Reuters)

South Africa’s parliament issued a reprimand to police Monday after media outlets reported that police stations across the country were running out of rape kits -- a disturbing problem in a country once called "the world's rape capital.”

“This is totally unacceptable, and we as the Committee strongly condemn the shortage of these kits,” the chairwoman of the parliament’s police committee said in a statement. “The high incidences of rape around the country make the situation untenable and we urge the [Police] Commissioner to resolve this.”

The South African Police Service, which responded in a statement of its own, blamed the shortages on supply-chain errors and promised they’d be corrected. But The Times, the Johannesburg-based paper that broke the story, is reporting a more systemic, long-term problem: shortages left unaddressed for months, hospitals resorting to old and expired rape kits, and “huge loopholes” that lead to suspects walking free.

That’s a particularly troubling accusation in South Africa, where sexual violence remains a trenchant problem. A 2009 government survey of men in the KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces found that one in four had raped before, half of them more than once. Ninety-seven percent of South Africans consider rape a major, society-wide problem.

According to official statistics, 127 of every 100,000 people reported sexual offenses last year -- though police estimate only one in 36 rapes are actually reported, according to South Africa’s public broadcasting network. (For an inexact but illustrative comparison, the U.S. rate was 52.7 rapes for every 100,000 people in 2011, the last year for which data is available.)

The issue has had a particularly high profile in recent weeks, reports Zimbabwe’s Herald Online. A 28-year-old woman died in Grahamstown last week, a month after being raped by multiple men. Earlier in February, a 17-year-old girl died under similar circumstances.

On Feb. 28, President Jacob Zuma launched a “Stop Rape” campaign intended to educate schoolchildren on sexual violence. Notably, Zuma was tried for rape himself in 2005, though he was later acquitted.

Even Playboy's South African franchise has taken a stance, launching a controversial campaign to end violence against women.

But researchers say South Africa will need more than a few magazine covers to change its rape culture, which has been blamed on some combination of "a historical culture of 'might is right,' a wealth gap that makes men feel weak, an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate childcare ... and high male unemployment," according to The Guardian.

Whatever the root cause, Monday's parliamentary statement makes it clear that rape kit shortages aren't helping.

"It is because of the shortage of the rape kits that many perpetrators end up not being convicted of rape even though they are guilty," the statement said, "and this has ripple effects on society as the rapists strike again.”

Caitlin Dewey is The Post’s digital culture critic. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindewey or subscribe to her daily newsletter on all things Internet. (



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