Lesbian Domestic Violence: South Africa’s Invisible Epidemic

Intimate partner violence among lesbian couples in South Africa is underrepresented in research and trivialized by police, leaving victims unwilling or unable to access the protective services, says Ingrid Lynch of LGBTI support organization the Triangle Project.

Written by Jen Thorpe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Lesbian women who were interviewed for a report on intimate partner violence said South Africa’s “deeply patriarchal and homophobic” society makes it difficult for them to seek help when they experience domestic violence. AFP/Rajesh Jantilal

Every year in South Africa, the courts process hundreds of thousands of domestic violence reports and protection orders – there were 275,536 new applications in 2015-16 alone. There has been extensive research on the nature and causes of domestic violence in the country, with experts pointing to inequality, power imbalances between men and women, and harmful gender roles and narratives as the roots of the problem.

But most of the research looks at intimate partner violence (IPV) between men and women. Little attention or funding has been dedicated to the implications of IPV within same-sex relationships, and the result, say LGBTI campaigners, are policy and service gaps that impact the health and safety of many lesbian women across the country.

In 2016, the Triangle Project, an LGBTI advocacy and support organization based in Cape Town, launched the report “I’m Your Maker,” which details the physical and economic violence perpetrated by and against women in same-sex relationships. Women & Girls spoke with Ingrid Lynch, board member of the Triangle Project and co-author of the report, about what the findings could mean for lesbian women in South Africa.

Women & Girls: Why did the report choose to focus on lesbian intimate relationships?

Ingrid Lynch: We remain in the dark about the extent of violence against women in same-sex relationships in South Africa, but global studies estimate same-sex partner abuse to be at least as prevalent if not more so than that of intimate partner violence occurring in heterosexual relationships.

Lesbian and other sexual minority women face complex experiences of violence – not only perpetrated by men in the broader gender-based violence epidemic, but also at times in their intimate relationships. However, when lesbian women seek help from gender-based violence organizations such as women’s shelters, or institutions like the police, they are often met with ignorance, or at times even hostility or ridicule. We wanted to make a start on understanding such violence better, so that available resources can better respond to the diverse experiences of women.

Women & Girls: What are the drivers of violence in lesbian intimate partner relationships?

Lynch: Our research confirmed what studies in other contexts have found – that the core drivers of intimate partner violence across the experiences of lesbian and straight women are the same, and that among these the influence of prevailing hetero-gendered norms stand out. What this means is the same gender norms that facilitate violence against women in heterosexual relationships affect women in same-sex relationships, causing power imbalances that make violence more likely.

Women & Girls: South Africa’s legislative framework has recognized the need for specialized support for LGBTI persons. What are some of the factors that continue to make violence against lesbians more likely to happen and more difficult to report?

Lynch: The women who participated in our research all described their social contexts as deeply patriarchal and homophobic, despite the constitutional protections that LGBTI persons are afforded in South Africa.

This means that lesbian women are particularly socially isolated when they experience abuse, since they cannot simply reach out to others if the relationship in which they are experiencing it is already so heavily stigmatized.

It also often means that lesbian women are already facing other challenges based on marginalizing contexts, such as rejection by family members and unemployment. For example, only 21 percent of participants in this research were employed and only 57 percent had completed secondary schooling. This adds exponentially to their vulnerability to violence.

There is also a measure of silencing among lesbian women themselves. Considering the enduring stigmatization of same-sex sexualities, many lesbian women do not want others to speak out about their experiences out of fear that it will further fuel societal homophobia.

Women & Girls: Why do you think lesbian women have such difficulty reporting crimes to the police in particular?

Lynch: The South African police are currently not trained to respond competently and sensitively to persons of diverse genders and sexual orientations, despite legislative changes such as the South African Domestic Violence Act explicitly including partner abuse in same-sex relationships.

Women participating in our research recounted varied experiences of secondary victimization from police, including police minimizing the seriousness of the case and trivializing the abuse because it is perpetrated by a woman. This is linked to social norms that suggest that women are inherently non-violent and that idealize lesbian same-sex relationships as egalitarian.

Because of these norms, in many instances reporting a case was met by complete inaction, with the police failing to intervene or arrest the perpetrator.

Women & Girls: What are some of the key action points or advocacy goals for Triangle in the wake of the report’s findings?

Lynch: Triangle Project has the dismantling of patriarchal, heterosexist and heteronormative systems and hierarchies at the core of all of its work. However, even within supportive spaces like LGBTI organizations or social circles, women who experience same-sex partner abuse may be silenced and isolated. A critical step in responding to intimate partner violence experienced by lesbian women, aside from the work that needs to be done in terms of state responses, is to make sure that supportive spaces for women and girls generally are also affirming of lesbian women.

Our report, and research conducted by others, points to an urgent need for improved and integrated responses to same-sex IPV from both the criminal justice system as well as health care providers and other supportive services. An important advocacy goal is therefore to apply pressure to ensure that comprehensive training takes place, in order to close the gap between policy development and implementation.

Where policy protections do exist, it is important to take those up. For example, lesbian women who require protection orders should request them and, if needed, mobilize the support of NGOs in ensuring they are enforced.

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