In a classroom in the South African township of Soweto, girls listen carefully, knowing they need to learn how to avoid the threat of rape that hangs over their daily lives.
“You are going to pretend that it is the rapist’s testicles,” trainer Dimakatso Monokoli said, holding out a padded target.
An 11-year-old girl charges without flinching and delivers a powerful knee slam.
It is part of a day of self-defense and rape avoidance strategies taught at the Thabisang school, where chairs and desks have been pushed back to the pink walls of the classroom.
Official statistics suggest that more than 110 rapes are recorded by the police every day in South Africa, but such numbers are widely seen as inaccurate due to under-reporting.
Some studies suggest only one in 13 rapes is reported to the police.
Recent news stories have triggered fresh horror among South Africans over the prevalence of rape.
A 17-year-old last month was raped in a hospital maternity ward by a man pretending to be a doctor, one day after she had given birth.
About the same time, a seven-year-old girl was raped in the toilets of a popular chain restaurant in Pretoria, with a video footage emerging of the naked man moments after the attack.
For the African National Congress Women’s League, drastic action is needed.
“We have tried our best ... there’s nothing that seems to lower [the number of attacks]. Hence, we are calling for chemical castration,” league secretary general Meokgo Matuba said after the two rapes.
In another classroom in Soweto, Monokoli teaches not only self-defense, but how girls can read and react to potentially risky situations.
“Don’t ever, ever make the mistake of being in the same room as someone you don’t feel comfortable with because your guts have warned you,” she said. “They have sent a message — you are not supposed to be alone with that person.”
If you are attacked, “scream as much as you can,” she said.
Monokoli works for Action Breaks Silence (ABS), a South African charity that works with schools to educate girls in self-defense. It also runs a “Hero Empathy” program for boys to try to preempt abusive and violent behavior.
ABS founder Debi Steven was herself raped as a child, and has spent decades teaching and advising at schools and companies.
“Violence has been normalized in South Africa,” she said. “There is so much rape that people have become desensitized to it.”
She urges a mix of self-defense training with mental awareness.
“The self-defense gives girls the confidence to set boundaries,” she said. “If I have an education about what is wrong and right, I know what abuses it, and I am going to identify the minute you start abusing me emotionally, physically, sexually, financially.”
In many cases, sexual violence is committed by relatives or people known to the victim. Steven says two women are murdered every day by their partners or former partners in South Africa.
In the classroom, the girls — wearing their blue school uniform and long socks — giggle occasionally but the atmosphere is serious and focused.
“We are going to teach you how to fight smart, without strength,” one male instructor tells them, pointing out they can always “rip off the ears and nostrils.”
The lessons appear to have sunk in.
“We are warriors,” said Nonkululeko, an energetic 11-year-old. “I have this amazing drug in me, adrenaline, that helps you fight. It helps you to do almost the impossible.”
The classes are often cathartic, with pupils occasionally sharing with instructors their own stories of abuse they have suffered.
At another Soweto school, boys in the “Hero Empathy” program run through roleplay games that encourage them to show emotions and develop empathy for other people’s feelings.
They have to act out moods such as anger or sadness while their classmates try to guess how they feel — not always successfully.
“In an African community, it is often taught that boys [should not] show emotions. When you show emotions, it is like a sign of weakness,” instructor Isaac Mkhize said.
ABS has taught more than 13,000 children, and its impact has impressed the South African Department of Health, which has asked the charity to train 160 new staff.
One mother, Mali Masondo, explained how deeply the fear of rape is embedded in the daily lives of children and families.
“You don’t know who to trust, who to love and who to care for,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t even allow people to love your kids as they wish because every time you think of the negative side.”
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