JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – By the time you’ve finished reading this sentence, a woman in South Africa has been raped. Here, 500,000 rapes occur a year: one every 17 seconds. One in two women will be raped in her lifetime. What to many is a horrible tragedy, here, local schoolboys call “jackrolling” and practice it frequently, because it’s “fun.”
In South Africa, no woman is safe from violence. These injuries, furthermore, prevent women from achieving an education, accessing healthcare, earning a living and participating in their community and society.
This male domination and violence has created an oppressive culture where women are forced to conform to gender and cisnormative stereotypes, or face the consequences. Hate crimes known as “corrective” rape, target lesbian women in hopes to “cure” them of their sexual orientation. These women who appear to be threats to the status quo created by men, are punished with beatings, rapes, taunts and frequently, even execution.
The discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people propagates the idea that a heterosexual orientation is the only “normal” sexual relation. Those who transcend these norms end up facing discrimination and violence.
In 86 UN member states homosexuality is illegal while in 7 countries it is even punishable by death. Though South Africa specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in their constitution, unless protected by the state, it remains moot.
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It pledges protection and equality for all citizens. However, we scarcely see these ideals in everyday practice. In 2000, the Equality Act was passed to outlaw hate crimes, but have only been applied to race and gender while almost never, to sexual orientation. This means that attackers against these women are very rarely brought to justice.
Why? As one woman explained, “It’s easier to keep quiet.”
The women who do seek justice are only let down. Only 1 in 5 reported cases end up in court, with just over 4% of these cases resulting in an actual conviction. Since 1998, there have been 31 recorded murders of lesbians, and just one conviction.
Witnesses are often disregarded in court, as screams and cries are deemed as “hearsay, as the woman may be screaming in pleasure.” The police, moreover, do not have the resources nor the inclination to investigate.
Leonie Spalding when discussing her inclination to her husband, was correctively raped by him. The officer on duty, a friend of her husband’s, raised no charge because her husband did “what any man should do and showed [her][her]place as a woman.”
In a country “reborn” with one of the most progressive constitutions and leaders, it is a mockery to put millions of women’s lives and safety on the line. “Women’s bodies have become warzones,” says Phumi Mtetwa, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Project of Johannesburg, “[But] if we work together, we can start to change attitudes. But at the moment, violence is an everyday reality we have to live with.”
Rape is quickly becoming one of the most widespread hate crimes against lesbian women in townships across South Africa. In fact, one Cape Town lesbian and gay support group says it’s dealing with 10 new cases every week.
Those hit the hardest are black lesbians from townships who find themselves already socially disadvantaged. Gay rights group Triangle’s 2008 research revealed that while 44% of white lesbians from the Western Cape lived in fear of sexual assault, 86% of their black counterparts felt that way.
On Sunday July 7, 2007, the bodies of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Messooa were found in a field within Meadowlands. Both had been gang-raped and tortured before being tied with their underwear and shot, execution-style, through the head. The case closed with no convictions having been made.
After their murder, 27 gay and women’s rights and community groups joined together to form the 07-07-07 campaign, to bring justice to not only Sizakele and Salome, but all women targeted for hate crimes.
In a survey carried out by national support organization CIET, almost 20% of men, when asked about their attitudes to rape, said they believed a survivor enjoyed the experience and “asked for it.”
Corrective rape victims, when questioned, stated that most of the verbal abuse occurring during the rape focused on being “taught a lesson” and being “shown how to be a real woman.”
Failure by the criminal justice system has pushed many of these women to leave their homes and go into hiding. They are made to feel like criminals and cowards, and are even afraid of the police at times.
In a poll dedicated to the survivors of homophobic hate crimes in the Western Cape, 66% of women said they didn’t report their attack because they were afraid they wouldn’t be taken seriously, 25% feared exposing their sexual orientation to the police and 22% said they were afraid of being abused.
Until all perpetrators of crimes against women are brought to justice, this violence will continue to be a very real and very dark reality of the life of not only lesbians, but all women in South Africa.