JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African school exam that asked drama students how they would stage a scene about the rape of a baby was condemned on Wednesday as a crass attempt to address some of the world's worst levels of sexual violence.
In the nationwide exam sat this week, thousands of students aged around 17 were posed questions about the critically acclaimed play "Tshepang", based on the real-life 2001 rape of an infant by her mother's boyfriend.
Public outrage over the Tshepang incident and many other well publicized instances of sexual violence against women and children has done little to ease a problem endemic in South Africa, which has one of highest rape rates in the world.
In 2012 nearly 65,000 sexual crimes were reported in the nation of 53 million and last month lynch mobs roamed a Johannesburg township after the rape and murder of two toddlers aged two and three.
The drama students were presented with a line of stage directions from the play, by Lara Foot Newton, in which a male narrator describes a rural community's descent into alcoholism, prostitution and sexual exploitation.
"He acts out the rape, using the broomstick and the loaf of bread," the stage directions say. The exam question then asks students to say how they would get the actor to portray it "to maximize the horror".
The question stunned many students.
"When I read the question I was in shock," said 18-year-old student Caitlin Wiggil in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
"To describe the rape of a nine-month-old baby is something you never want to have to do. To be forced to do it because you need the marks is completely disgusting," she told Reuters.
At least one of her fellow students had refused to answer the question, she added.
The Department of Basic Education, which presides over South Africa's chronically underperforming state school system, defended the question, saying it was "well within the prescripts of the curriculum" and that students should be aware of what is one of the country's biggest social problems.
However, it acknowledged that exam questions should not invoke "negative or adverse feelings or emotions in candidates" and if enough students refused to answer the question it would be discounted from the marking.
Given South Africa's rape statistics, it is almost certain that some of the students will have been victims of sexual assault, said Rachel Jewkes, a gender and health researcher at the South African Medical Research Council (MRC).
Recent MRC studies in the Eastern Cape, one of South Africa's poorest provinces, showed that one in four female students in Grade 9-10 - mainly 15- and 16-year-olds - had either been raped or suffered attempted rape.
"The person who set this question was probably well-meaning but it's a sign of how incredibly misguided people can be on issues related to rape," Jewkes said. "I find it inconceivable how anybody could possibly think that was appropriate."
She also criticized the use in an exam of the real-life trauma of a victim who will now be a 13-year-old school-goer.
"Although Tshepang is a made-up name, the way it's set as a national question I just find completely abhorrent," Jewkes said.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy