"It was in 1968 or 1969, and I was a young intern counseling a girl from one of South Africa's townships, who'd been raped. She said, 'If only I had teeth down there,'" Ehlers told AOL News. "And I thought, God, it would be great to make something that could really be useful."
Ehlers, a 62-year-old physician, lab researcher and hematologist -- and a mother of two daughters -- spent the next four decades developing a female condom with jagged latex hooks that latch onto the skin of an attacker. Dubbed "Rape-aXe," the condom is inserted with an applicator like a tampon, and it clenches a man's penis and causes "immense discomfort" without drawing blood. It can only be removed by medical professionals, who are being familiarized with the device in order to contact South African police when they see one.
"I'm not out for vengeance. It doesn't leave permanent damage to the penis, but there will be tiny little scars to remind him of what he's done -- something his wife or future wife might ask him about," Ehlers said.
The new condom was patented in 2007, and Ehlers hopes to begin selling it in South African pharmacies and grocery stores soon. It's being evaluated by the country's Bureau of Standards and would sell for about $2.50. Meanwhile, Ehlers has distributed samples to 100 unnamed women across South Africa this week, for initial testing during the World Cup.
South Africa has one of the world's highest crime rates outside war zones, with 50 murders and 140 rapes reported each day, though experts believe the real number of rapes could be many times higher. A 2009 survey by South Africa's Medical Research Council found that 28 percent of men admitted to having raped a woman, and 20 percent said they had done so in the past year.
After that emotional meeting with a rape victim in the late 1960s, Ehlers describes how she began inventing the new condom by experimenting with a household item: the safety seal found on a soda bottle. "I was playing around with the plastic strip that tightens around the bottle's neck, running my fingers over it, and then I phoned Coca-Cola," Ehlers said. One of the company's engineers joined her team, which also includes gynecologists and psychologists who've interviewed rapists in South African prisons, she said.
Critics of Ehlers' invention say it could be too punitive for the alleged rapist, and also worry that the device could lead to more violence against women, once a rapist realizes that he's been branded by the device. Some also say it's unfair to put the onus of halting rape on women rather than on the offenders themselves.
"Women should not need to artificially alter our bodies to prevent rape," Erin Matson, a vice president of the National Organization for Women, told AOL News in an e-mail interview. "Preventing rape requires educating women and men. ... By putting the focus on women's own anatomy, this product seems to use rape -- a serious crime -- to sexualize women even further."
A South African expert on gender-based violence, Lisa Vetten, said the device harks "back to the days where women were forced to wear chastity belts."
"It is a terrifying thought that women are being made to adapt to rape by wearing these devices," Vetten, with South Africa's Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said in a 2007 statement when Ehlers obtained her patent. "Women would have to wear this every minute of their lives on the off-chance that they would be raped."
Ehlers advises women to wear the anti-rape condom when they're walking through dimly lit neighborhoods alone at night, or even on a blind date. It can be worn for 24 hours straight, she said.
For years, Ehlers counseled rape victims and heard stories about how women tried to use makeshift devices similar to hers to protect themselves. She said one woman confessed to having embedded a razor blade into her contraceptive sponge, to hurt any man who might rape her. Ehlers said she wanted to develop a safe, medically approved device for women that wouldn't maim their rapists, either.
"My critics say I've developed a medieval device, but I say it's a medieval device for a medieval deed," Ehlers told AOL News today in a phone interview from her office north of Cape Town.
"I've had so many e-mails from women who've been raped, who say 'Now we feel armed,'" Ehlers said, referring to women who've heard about her invention. "We want to get T-shirts that say, 'Try me now.'"
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