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Why do male perpetrators abuse so many small children in South Africa?

We have been funding research into this issue for 5 years and it is finally finished and published – read the summary below.

Our researcher has interviewed 48 perpetrators in prison in South Africa; all are in jail after being found guilty of some of the most terrible crimes against some of the most vulnerable children – a few as young as a few days old.

Those interviewed are all men aged between 16 years and 84 years old, and all have brutalised and raped at least one child.

Our research is to establish WHY they do what they do.

We owe a great debt to our researcher for gaining access to and interviewing these 48 men in South African jails, and asking them why they have committed such crimes. 

It has been a truly horrible process, but essential if we are to try to understand why these crimes are committed and how we can target programmes to try to stall the ever-growing numbers of children who are being brutalised.

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Why do men in South Africa sexually abuse young children?
A study of 27 convicted perpetrators[1]

South Africa is alleged to have the highest rate of sexual abuse per capita among 49 other countries in the world (Human Rights Watch, 2010; Posel, 2005).The statistics are sketchy as the SA Police Force does not keep accurate figures, and many rapes go unreported; however the SA rape crisis service assesses, from its work, that there are around 50,000 children under the age of 12 years old who are raped every year – 137 children every day – see

There is considerable speculation about what accounts for these very high numbers of child rape so we set out to explore one key element of the problem - how perpetrators make sense of sexual acts with young children in South Africa.

The study
Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 27 incarcerated male sex offenders, aged between 16 and 86, all convicted for sexual abuse of children aged six years and below. The men in the study were recruited from within eight prisons in Limpopo, North West and Gauteng Provinces in South Africa. The participants were from both urban and rural areas; they included most of the racial and ethnic groups in the South African population whilst some were immigrants from neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe.  The men participated willingly and it was extremely traumatic listening to, engaging with and being empathic to perpetrators who disclosed harrowing details of their sexually abusive acts. 

The interviews reinforced the complex nature of the child sexual abuse phenomenon in South Africa. The perpetrators did not use the virgin cleansing myth as an explanation for the sexual abuse of young children. According to these participants the virgin cleansing myth explanation is used by those with a lack of understanding about HIV/AIDS; most of the men argued they had adequate knowledge that HIV/AIDS is incurable and that those who use such explanations were excusing abusive behaviour.

Some of the men believed that their childhood adversities put them at risk of offending. Some of these adversities include poverty, being raised in dysfunctional families characterised by domestic violence and parental alcohol and drug abuse, orphanhood, absent fatherhood, childhood neglect, and emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Socio-cultural factors including patriarchal notions of manhood, particularly the perpetrators’ beliefs about sexual entitlement, are often used to explain the sexual abuse of young children. Democratisation of South Africa and the subsequent institutionalisation of women’s rights have led to feelings of disempowerment in some of these men and a belief that these changes have led to restricted access to sex. These beliefs are used to justify sexual abuse of young children because of a sense of entitlement to sex as and when they want it. Often it seems a child is used to replace a woman for male sexual gratification - here the act is not perceived as problematic because women and children are perceived as mere objects for male sexual gratification.


  • Many of the men experienced sexual abuse at the same age of the children they abused.
  • Children were, as in many societies, targeted because of their vulnerability.
  • Women, and children, are still seen by vast numbers of SA men as objects for male enjoyment.
  • Child rape is sometimes used to punish women and put them in their place.
  • The primary motivation for the abuse and rape of children is the drive for power.

Dr Kgauhelo Lekalakala.  PhD. MA. BA Hons. BA SW.
Lesley Rudd. MSc. RN.  Chief Executive, the infant trust.

For further information contact

[1] This study was successfully submitted as a PhD thesis to the Open University. Pub. 2014. Funding was from the Open University and the infant trust.

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To date, with the help of DHL, we have sent from the UK to South Africa, over 2,500 soft toys for vulnerable children. The outpouring of love and donations of beautiful soft toys has been quite amazing and we thank every child and parent/guardian who have donated. Each and every toy that we sent will be cherished in their new home. We are now stopping accepting toys because those lovely people at do this all the time, again with DHL, and send toys to children all over the world. Any kind people who wish to donate will now be referred to them.

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We are proud and honoured that our work has been recognised by the UK Prime Minister, and that he has given Lesley his Point of Light award, stating
With the Infant Trust Lesley has empowered thousands of women across South Africa to protect and safeguard children in their communities. The education and training she has provided has helped to improve the lives of over 800,000 children, tackling the violence and abuse that affects too many of them in their early years. As we mark International Women’s Day this week I am delighted to recognise all that Lesley has done.”
You can find the full story at

Why are so many small children abused by male perpetrators in South Africa? Our researcher interviewed 27 perpetrators in prison in South Africa; all are in jail after being found guilty of some of the most terrible crimes against some of the most vulnerable children – some as young as a few days old. Those interviewed are all men aged between 16 years and 84 years old, and all have brutalised and raped at least one child. But the findings aren’t maybe what we might expect – it makes interesting reading.  We have been funding research into this for 5 years and it is finally finished and published – you can read the summary here

Our flagship Caring for Crèches programme has reached into some of the poorest communities in five of the nine provinces in South Africa and we have crèche leaders everywhere clamouring for the training. We have now trained over 2,200 people and they in turn have already positively impacted on the lives of over 160,000 children … and will continue to help many hundreds more children for years to come

Just once in a while, amongst all the amazing work that is done to help children in South Africa, we come across a shining star. One such is Wilhelmina who determined to setup a refuge for abandoned children.
Newsletter The report from our most recent visit to South Africa

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