One night earlier this month, a lesbian couple were sleeping at home after having returned from a music festival in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, in eastern South Africa. They were woken by loud noises outside. Shortly after, a group of men kicked down their door, entered the house and demanded sex.
“When I refused, one pushed me onto the bed, undressed and started to rape me,” one of the women later told a local newspaper. “Our cries fell on deaf ears as nobody came to our rescue.”
Both women were raped while the gang admonished them for being gay.
“They hurled insults at us and told us that they wanted to teach us … how it feels to be a woman,” said one of the women.
Corrective rape, the belief that heterosexual rape can “cure” or “correct” a woman’s homosexuality, is known to be common in South Africa, although the exact number of incidents is impossible to calculate. There is no separate category for corrective rape in the law, which means incidents are not officially recorded. Despite promises of a law to deal specifically with corrective rape in 2010, and years of pressure from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) groups in South Africa, activists say concrete government action has been slow to materialize.
Many are now calling for corrective rape to be legally recognized as a hate crime, along with other hate-motivated acts, which could force government institutions and the police to provide specific responses, such as gender sensitivity training for staff dealing with these crimes and enhanced sentencing for perpetrators. A law could also push authorities to come up with a standardized response to incident reports with an emphasis on better data collection and monitoring of hate crimes to measure the extent of the problem, and the subsequent allocation of appropriate resources to address it.
“Even though the term [corrective rape] is often used, no such legal category exists,” says Sanja Bornman, managing attorney of the Lawyers for Human Rights‘ Gender Equality Program and chairperson of the Hate Crimes Working Group.
“Activists are calling for a law that specifically recognizes the motive of hate, which makes these crimes different for several reasons, including the implicit threat to other lesbians within these communities,” says Bornman.
While a draft hate crimes bill was opened to public comment on October 19 and obliges police and judicial officials to take sexual orientation and gender identity into account when considering motive, Bornman says the process of having it officially signed into law will be lengthy.
In the meantime, the government is taking small steps to address the issue of corrective rape, but activists say these small successes are often marred by a lack of capacity. In 2011, a Change.org petition demanding the South African government take action to stop corrective rape, received over 170,000 signatures. The result was the formation of the National Task Team on LGBTIQ issues (NTT), a partnership between the government and civil society groups aimed at addressing hate crimes, among other issues.
“The NTT holds significant promise but is hampered by a lack of capacity and coordination, especially at the provincial level,” says Bornman.
The Department of Justice also established a Rapid Response Team to respond to hate crimes and to address the backlog of reported incidents of hate crimes being committed against LGBTIQ persons. But this team, too, is ineffective, say critics.
Historically, South Africa has taken a progressive approach to LGBTIQ issues in the law – it was one of the first countries in the world to protect the right of sexual orientation in its constitution, for example.
But activists argue that laws aren’t much of a deterrent in the context of South Africa’s patriarchal society. In a recent survey commissioned by the Other Foundation, an African Trust aiming at advancing freedom and equality in Africa, an estimated 450,000 South Africans reported they had physically harmed women who “dress and behave like men in public” in the previous 12 months, and 700,000 had verbally abused gender nonconforming people.
Violence against lesbians in South Africa is taking place against a backdrop of sexual violence and machismo culture. More than 50,000 sexual offenses have been reported to the police every year since the Sexual Offenses Act was passed in 2007, with a decline in reported sexual offenses in the past five years. The Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust attributed this decrease to reduced reporting rather than reduced incidence of rape, thus those figures might only reflect a small portion of the real number of offenses.
Cases of corrective rape are rarely reported and even more rarely result in a conviction. But when perpetrators are punished, those cases often illustrate the disconnect between the country’s progressive law and patriarchal reality. In 2008, national female football star Eudy Simelane was murdered just outside Kwa Thema in Johannesburg. Simelane, who had been a vocal advocate of LGBTIQ rights, had been gang raped, beaten and stabbed 25 times in the legs, face and chest. Simelane’s trial was the first related to the murder of a lesbian women to end in a conviction. But in his sentencing, the judge ruled that her sexual orientation did not play a role in her rape and murder.
For the new law on hate crimes to be successful in preventing crimes like corrective rape, Bornman believes much more needs to be done to educate the public “about what it means to be LGBTIQ, and to ensure that those who do violate rights must be held accountable more consistently.”