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South Africa’s tougher laws on rape to go into effect in one of world’s hardest hit countries

    CAPE TOWN, South Africa — After a protracted delay, tough new laws against sexual abuse will finally go into effect Sunday in South Africa, which is often called the ‘‘rape capital’’ of the world.
    The Justice Ministry said Friday that the Sexual Offenses Amendment Act would help the country ‘‘fight the scourge of sexual offenses head-on’’ and would at last give greater protection to victims of sexual crimes.
    For the first time, victims will be able to go to court to force their attackers to take AIDS tests. An estimated 5.4 million South Africans are infected with HIV — the highest number of any country in the world.
    More than 50,000 rape cases were reported last year, almost 150 per day. Based on reported cases alone, South Africa has 114 rapes per 100,000 people, compared with a rate of 32 rapes per 100,000 in the United States, according to police figures. Women’s rights groups estimate that only one in nine rapes is reported to police.
    The definition of rape was until now narrow and outdated. Attacks on children, for instance, were often classified as indecent assault, not rape — even though the young are often targeted because of the mistaken belief that sex with a child can rid the body of the HIV virus.
    The new law says that sexual penetration by objects other than a penis would be classed as rape — which usually is punished with a life sentence — rather than sexual assault, for which there are lesser sentences. For the first time, male-on-male sexual assault is classed as rape.
    The new law introduces tougher measures to protect children and the mentally disabled from sexual exploitation and child pornography. It would also set up a register of sexual offenders so that schools and other institutions dealing with children could vet candidates for jobs.
    The bill was approved by parliament before it went into recess last month after being held up for more than a year because of technical legal problems over the clauses about compulsory HIV tests for sexual offenders.
    The revised legislation said all victims should be entitled to apply for a court order to compel the alleged sex offender to take an AIDS test, and should get free medication immediately after the rape to reduce the risks of contracting the virus. Given the delay in HIV infection showing up in tests, many women currently face weeks of agonized uncertainty over whether their attacker carried the deadly virus.
    The provisions on AIDS testing will take effect in March because of the legal complexities involved, the Justice Ministry said.

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