Lydia Smith, Telegraph, May 21, 2015
Zakhe, 28, lives in Soweto in Johannesburg. She is a lesbian and a victim of a horrifying growing trend in South Africa: corrective rape. “They tell me that they will kill me, they will rape me and after raping me, I will become a girl,” she tells ActionAid. “I will become a straight girl.”
On a Sunday morning in July 2007, the bodies of Zakhe’s friends Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa were found in a field in Meadowlands, a suburb of Johannesburg. Both women had been bound with their underwear, gang-raped, tortured and shot. Just weeks previously, Sizakele had said she felt uneasy in her community as one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian. Nearly eight years on, three men have been detained and released. The case is now effectively closed.
A month on from the xenophobic attacks that rocked the country last month, South Africa continues to deal with a crisis that refuses to go away; hate crimes against lesbian women to “cure” them of their homosexuality. Since the term corrective rape was coined by charity workers over a decade ago, few national statistics on levels of violence against lesbians have been compiled. At least 32 women have been raped and murdered in the last 15 years–but underreporting means this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. According to South African charity Luleki Sizwe, more than 10 women are raped or gang-raped weekly.
Societal attitudes need to shift
The country’s transition to democracy and its constitutional and human rights framework has been a source of hope for South Africans. But as promise is translated into reality, South Africa is facing a number of challenges–one of which is the prevalence of gender-based violence.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world. Of the estimated 500,000 rapes that take place every year, only one in nine are reported. For every 25 men brought to trial for rape, 24 will walk free – a poignant reminder of the aggressive masculinity that colours the social and political landscape of South Africa. In a country strongly influenced by traditional cultures and religious groups, corrective rape is a reaction to protect the status quo – women are forced to conform to gender stereotypes or suffer the consequences.
“There is a clear sense of entitlement to women’s bodies which underlies the general rape pandemic, and no doubt the attack of lesbian women or women who read as gender non-conforming,” says Emily Craven, policy and programme manager at ActionAid South Africa, one of the first charities to document the use of corrective rape.
“The notion that women do not need men for either economic support or sexual pleasure is one that is deeply threatening to entrenched patriarchal values.”
Several studies have highlighted the problem of gender inequality that pervades South Africa. According to research by the anti-violence NGO, CIET, 20 per cent of men said the victim “asked for it”. In a related survey, a quarter of Soweto schoolboys described “jackrolling”–a local term for gang rape–as “fun”. Survivors of corrective rape have said their attackers wanted to show them “how to be real women and what a real man tasted like”.
With the apartheid in recent memory, its scars are evident in the gendered and racial segregation of the country. Violence is rife and there is a clear hierarchy which places women and lesbians–often in depressed socio-economic circumstances–at the bottom.
Sex education is non-existent
Part of the problem is that the cycle of hostility towards women and homosexuality is not addressed. South African schoolchildren are not taught about sexuality, sexual or reproductive health – a vital factor in changing attitudes towards sexual violence. In 2013, a UNESCO report found that schools nationwide were failing to make the grade on a number of essential topics, including gender rights.
Significantly, still, brutal violence against gay women stands in stark contradiction to the country’s progressive 1996 constitution. As the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation–South Africa was the first country in Africa to recognise same-sex marriage–the post-apartheid constitution hailed a new era of tolerance and equality.
Yet even a new constitution has failed to abolish deep-rooted bias against the South African LGBTQ community. If anything, the formal protections intensified homophobic inclinations, as the legal framework sprinted ahead of social consciousness on the issue of gay rights.
“Homophobic violence is not unique to South Africa nor is it an African phenomenon–but it is clear that this violence has taken a particular form in South Africa,” Craven says. “In the post-apartheid era a series of key legal battles were won which entrenched gay rights, culminating in the legalisation of gay marriage in 2007. These battles were however largely fought in court rooms and little was done to try and bring the population along with the process.”
As LGBTQ issues began to feature prominently in local media, lesbian and gay men and women felt safe to come out. Yet the vast majority of the population remained openly homophobic, which led to a backlash. Recent studies show that homophobia is still a major problem–a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found up to 61 per cent of South Africans believe society should not accept homosexuality.
The majority of attacks on lesbian women go unreported, but many are exceptionally violent–proof that attitudes towards lesbians are yet to change. Last August, 18-year-old Gift Makau was gang-raped, strangled with wire and left with a hosepipe in her mouth. Another woman, Noxolo Nogwaza was raped and stabbed to death with a shard of glass in 2011.
A failing criminal justice system
South Africa’s criminal justice system has failed to keep up with the country’s liberal constitution. Hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation are still not recognised by South African law, and the courts refuse to recognise that it plays any part in cases of corrective rape. The police are reluctant to investigate hate crimes against lesbian women and there is little support for survivors.
Nomawabo, from the northernmost province of Limpopo, has been sexually assaulted twice. At the age of 15, she was raped by a schoolfriend and two years later, she was abducted by a group of men and sexually assaulted for three days. Despite these horrific attacks, she is one of the luckier victims: she survived. Yet despite reporting the crime to police, the case disappeared and her attackers were never caught.
“At school I was betrayed by my best friend. He told me to come to his house for a school assignment but when I got to the house we fought until he hit me so hard I collapsed, and then he raped me because he said I needed to stop being a lesbian,” Nomawabo told ActionAid.
“Afterwards I got pregnant and had a baby. The second time, my soccer friends and I were kidnapped at gunpoint and they took us somewhere far away and did what they wanted with us for three days. We told the police but the case just disappeared. Nothing happened because they all thought I deserved it.”
Up to 40 per cent of South African women will be raped in their lifetime according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, but estimates very widely due to underreporting. Further statistics from the South African Police Service state that between 2013 and 2014 there were a total of 46,253 rapes were reported to police countrywide. However, due to underreporting, the figure is likely to be much higher per year. The Medical Research Council estimate that only one in nine rapes are reported to the police.
Moreover, only 14 per cent of perpetrators are convicted. Such a lack of accountability has left report rates at an all-time low, partly attributed to the public perception of the police post-apartheid as a symbol of oppression. Until 1994, South Africans lived in fear of the state–unjust laws were applied unfairly, intended to entrench white domination.
The successful prosecution of rapes is a challenge most countries face–including the UK. Recent research by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary also showed less than a quarter of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales resulted in a charge.
However, reporting rates are starting improve in the UK, just as South Africa heads in the opposite direction.
Despite the modern constitution, South African legislation continues to discriminate against women. Under the “cautionary rule”, a judge must show awareness to special dangers on relying on uncorroborated evidence of a complainant–thus, victims of sexual violence feel they may be deemed untrustworthy. Most victims have little faith in the police and the courts to bring their attacker to justice.
“Survivors do not have faith in the criminal justice system, perhaps rightly so,” Sarah McLaughlin of Rape Crisis South Africa says. “This means that rapists are not held accountable; there is no deterrent to rape. In addition, our government does not prioritise the issue of gender violence and does not allocate sufficient resources to address this issue.”
After over 20 years of democracy, lesbians are still living in the shadow of the apartheid. Corrective rape is a symptom of the toxic gender inequality and homophobic attitudes that continue to plague the country–a seemingly endless cycle of violence that did not end with decades of segregation.
“Many of the factors that drive the violence against women are a result of South Africa’s history–such as access to safety, livelihoods and justice,” McLaughlin explains. “Violence against women comes part of the parcel of mass social and structural inequality left over from apartheid.”