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The end of innocence: Photojournalist documents child sexual abuse

February 26th, 2014
10:02 AM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

It is hard to imagine – a three-year-old girl being raped. It is even harder to fathom the rapists being children themselves.

But in South Africa, not only is this crime shockingly common, it may be on the rise.

45% of rapes reported to the police in South Africa are child rapes, and 50% of South Africa’s children will be abused before the age of 18, according to South Africa’s Tears Foundation and the Medical Research Council.

For over a decade, photographer Mariella Furrer has worked to document these crimes with powerful photos and accompanying narratives.

She has compiled her work into a nearly 700-page book, “My Piece of Sky.”

Click here to see Furrer’s photos in large format

“Most child sexual abuse is unreported,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. “The most important thing about this body of work really is to try to get people to speak out about their abuse – to have the courage to speak out about it, because there’s a lot of shame and guilt attached to it.”

The opening page of her book quotes the great American poet and author Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Furrer has a personal connection to her work; she herself was abused as a young child in Kenya.

“I was five years old,” she said. “I was molested by a stranger, a tourist – I think it was some white man in a little caravan. And he touched me.”

“But it felt good. It felt good, and that filled me with guilt, and remorse. And it impacted me in so many ways that I wasn’t really aware of at the time, growing up.”

Life is always stranger than fiction, and some of the stories captured in her book defy belief.

In one photo, Furrer captured a young girl – she appears to be about three or four – in a nightgown trying to leave a room. The photo’s explanation tells us that she is attempting “to flee a doctor’s room before a medical forensic examination.”

The girl’s nine-year-old relative admitting to playing “sexual games” with her, and he was himself later discovered to have been sexually abused.

“Every day they wake up they are reminded through either a scar on them or a tattoo that dad has put on them – you know, saying ‘Daddy loves you,’ or things like that,” Furrer said.

Child sexual abuse is particularly prevalent in South Africa, but it is a global problem, Furrer said.

“It transcends any social, economic, and racial boundaries. And it’s everywhere.”

One of the most shocking revelations of Furrer’s work is that it is that the abuse is not just a case of adults taking advantage of vulnerable children, but indeed children abusing other children.

In another photo, a nine-year-old boy is shown in the back of a car, being driven to meet with a police social worker.

He was allegedly “gang raped and beaten with metal pipes and sticks by his ‘friend,’ two eight-year olds, three eleven-year olds and a thirteen-year old.”

They then tied him to a tree and left him there over night. The boy “never disclosed what happened,” so his perpetrators never went to trial, the book says.

“As we don’t speak out the perpetrator will continue,” Furrer said.

To her own surprise, Furrer told Amanpour that she discovered that she could find humanity in the perpetrators of these horrific crimes.

“When I was working with the police and these children coming in I was like, my goodness, if anyone comes in now I will kill them myself.”

That changed, she explained, when she started working with the offenders.

“I don’t feel affection for them, but I, I could see the different facets of each personality.”

“And one in particular I remember was a perpetrator from Namibia, who would have been a friend. You know, he was witty, intelligent, funny – and he abused children.”

The problem is that the potential perpetrators are not being identified, and helped.

“If there is a problem, and they’re sent to counselling and taught appropriate sexual behavior, there will not be a problem. It’s that we’re not catching these children in time.”

With such shocking statistics, it is easy to say that South African authorities are failing at their job to contain the problem.

When it comes to the police that Furrer worked with, at least, she said that this is not the case.

“The police that I worked with are so dedicated to the protection of children. I mean, to the extent that they’re going through divorces, they’re working overtime.”

One her favorite police officers, she said, was “Stroppie” Grobbelaar, pictured here.

“He is in the police search and rescue unit – dog unit,” she explained. “And we’ve spent about a month at this point searching for a little girl who went missing, and was last seen walking hand-in-hand with an unknown man. Every evening after the search he would come back to this mother.”

In the end, the girl was never found.

“I have post-traumatic-stress disorder, I suffer from depression,” she said.

“It’s extraordinary the impact of carrying other people’s stories with you. And there’s a great difficulty for me to release these stories because I feel they’ve been given to me and they are very sacred. So it’s difficult to let them go.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • South Africa
soundoff (78 Responses)
  1. HeroicSlug

    Yeah, Africa does kinda suck.

    Maybe don't go there.

    February 26, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • cynthia Godman

      u are an ignorant in the highest grade, people of your type believe that Africa is a country and not a continent. wake up!

      February 26, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Reply
      • ogamidiagoro

        So which African nation is a safe place these days?

        February 27, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
  2. afolabilekan59

    Reblogged this on afolabilekan59 and commented:

    February 26, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  3. No race

    I wonder are the Indians there raped too?

    February 26, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  4. Ice

    Shocking... Scary... Depressing... a wake up call... These children need help – the offended as well as the offender.

    February 26, 2014 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  5. xnikolinax

    What the world needs is a 3rd world war, a couple of earthquakes and tsunamis. We need to kill of half of the population because we are getting nowhere. It's a complete disaster out there. And if God does not exist, which is a possibility, then all the undeserved pain and suffering on earth is for nothing. So again, get a gun and go around and kill a few people so Earth can breed again.

    February 26, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  6. Qreur

    The problem is partly due to the mis-judgement of de Klerk when he terminated Apartheid. Yes the laws were wrong but instead of making them right, he just scrapped them.. thus the country became a lawless place. Lesson to learn: When transitioning, firstly reinforce the rule of law so that transition can be orderly. Orderliness is the basis of civilization.

    February 26, 2014 at 11:56 pm | Reply
    • John

      I do not agree. This abuse did not come about because of the end of apartheid; it existed before apartheid ended and indeed has its origins in the breakdown of families during the apartheid era. It's a long road to healing, with victims of one generation becoming perpetrators in the next. Not all of Africa is like this–indeed at this scale it is a uniquely South African problem. At least now that apartheid has ended, at least the problem is coming more to light and being addressed.

      February 27, 2014 at 11:13 am | Reply
      • Dee

        John, Bulls$#@t. It became a lawless state when the ANC took power and have no care in the world but their own, deep pockets. The President, his family and friends, they are the ones in charge and run the country only for themselves (becoming a dictatorship like in Zimbabwe). Year in, year out the government make promises but never succeed. Yes, they always condemn these brutal acts of lawlessness but hardly do you hear them doing anything about it. Local NGO's and good people from the community are doing the true Hero's work of helping these victims. The Madiba magic is gone, forever, which only lasted for the first 2 years after the end of Apartheid. It is becoming a country of survival. I give it 5 years, should the ANC with their Grade 5 student for a President get another term in office (by voters they like to keep uneducated so they can manipulate them with their lies) the country will start to burn again like in the apartheid years. This time it will be different, very different........ Oh, for those who do not know. South Africa is a country, the country at the very bottom of the Africa continent and NO the possibility for us to know somebody in Nairobi Kenya or Lagos Nigeria is zero percent because it is totally different countries few thousand miles away.

        February 27, 2014 at 3:27 pm |
  7. Jolard

    This kind of thing is only happening in the really poor parts of South Africa where rape, murder and crime are a second nature to these kids poverty has driven them to having to become men from extremely young ages and fend for themselves . So please dont be in shock the world is a cruel place we all know it just dont stereotype when it comes to South Africa because this kinda thing happens all over the world !

    February 27, 2014 at 12:01 am | Reply
  8. adebimpeakintade

    This Children realy need help o .

    February 27, 2014 at 2:55 am | Reply
  9. Sunbreaking

    it's hard to believe this kind of demonic thing .

    February 27, 2014 at 6:49 am | Reply
  10. Gatvol

    What du you expect.
    Their leader...Jacob Zuma..
    sets the example.

    February 27, 2014 at 7:13 am | Reply
  11. omololar

    So please do not be in shock the world is a cruel place we all know it just do not stereotype when it comes to South Africa because this kinda thing happens all over the world!

    February 27, 2014 at 7:14 am | Reply
  12. damiyamunir

    Reblogged this on My Thoughts In Words and commented:
    This is devastating!

    February 27, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  13. Jessica

    This happens right here in America also.

    February 27, 2014 at 10:39 pm | Reply
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    The days are evil, the rapture of d saint are at hand. Let no man deceive u dat d world is going to be a better place, for d word of God must surely come to pass. D world hav not seen anything yet, dis just d beginning of d story. 2tim 3 v1. This know also, that in d last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be loves of their own selves etc. Dis evil is not only happening in south Africa, it 's happening all over d world, including America. Ejimaco

    February 28, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Reply
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  17. Sinh Lam Chiem

    I need this published, so others will know that they are not alone.

    I believe when we are silent, it is the worse that one can do for his/her self. I was physically abused by my older sister as a 6 year old child. She would beat me until I was knocked out cold. This happened many times. One time she slapped my face so hard that I passed right out with a bleeding nose on the ground. Many people would stand and look on.

    I didn't realize that I had many problems growing up until joining the Canadian military, in 1995 with the Canadian Military Engineer Basic Training 9501. I witnessed a beating that was very severe in Chilliwack, BC; 2 big 220 pound men beating on a 150 pound person. I had a very hard time dealing with the memory of that, because it recalled the same feelings I felt when I was beaten up by my sister. I am still trying very hard to this day to recover from trauma; having frequent nightmares, and there never seems to be an ending to it all.

    Sinh Lam Chiem

    November 7, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Reply
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    capitol punishment should be required for any adult who rapes a child. Its a choice that is never done in self defense. No one in the public world who loves child innocence respect child rapists. Our children will always be at risk. Child rapists don't change and rape is hard enough to prove. Even prison people hate them. Child rape ties to military rapes as well. Powerful Rich Child Rapists have no records and fear no law. Death to child rapists would end the number of missing children world-wide and unless your Sandusky' s wife ( who is like ALL child rapist wives and people in society who look away) you would see how Capital Punishment is the most humanitarian act for the world!

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