By Brian Indrelunas
The country's laws could protect against prisoner rape, but the challenge was ensuring it was applied, NGO leaders said.
Sexual abuse in detention facilities is "increasingly becoming an issue that demands attention," said Sasha Gear, senior researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Gear was one of 25 people who met on Wednesday to discuss the problem. They represented organisations that focus on often-targeted groups of people or on the detention facilities themselves.
'In some ways, South Africa is far ahead of the US'
"The idea for this gathering really came from a series of individual meetings with NGOs last year," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of the US-based group Stop Prisoner Rape. "We sensed a desire to start communication among each other."
While often referred to as prisoner rape, the problem affects facilities run by many SA government departments, Gear said.
"While sexual violence is an enormous problem in prisons, it's not restricted to prisons."
She said the meeting's participants expressed a need to understand how current and forthcoming legislation should be implemented in those facilities, citing the example of the Sexual Offences Act passed last year.
"Now we have the legal framework that recognises male rape can occur, but how do we recognise that in prison?" Gear said.
Another focus of the meeting was providing training to people who run detention facilities.
"They know this is happening, but they don't know how to deal with it, how to respond to it, and it drives it further underground," said Lukas Muntingh, project co-ordinator for the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative.
Stannow said training was an area where NGOs could have much to contribute.
Stop Prisoner Rape has already worked with SA groups to conduct workshops for supervisors in the Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons, she said. "It really has been, I have to say, an impressive sign of openness by the Judicial Inspectorate."
Stannow also said: "In some ways, South Africa is far ahead of the US in its explicit commitment to human rights and its prison inspectorate, but clearly there's still a problem."
She said targeted populations are largely the same in both countries' prisons. Young people, first-time prisoners, those imprisoned for non-violent crimes and gay and transgender people are often at risk - but anyone can be targeted.
The meeting also focused on how to provide services to people who have been victims of sexual abuse while detained, Stannow said. It followed a Tuesday seminar on civil society's role in preventing torture attended by some of the same organisations.
Discussions on torture continued on Thursday at a conference held at the Cape Town Lodge.
Organised by the University of Bristol's law school, the conference focuses on a UN torture protocol that calls for places of detention to be opened to national and international inspectors.
South Africa signed but has not fully ratified or implemented the protocol.
In Cape Times