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Being lesbian in SA could get you killed – report

Resource type: News

Business Day (South Africa) |


BEING out as a lesbian in SA can get you killed. Or raped. Or both.

This is the “shocking” reality faced by gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people in this country, although they live in a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, a recent report says.

The report released by nongovernmental organisation Action-Aid on Wednesday, says that SA is “witnessing a backlash of crimes targeted specifically at lesbian women, who are perceived as representing a direct and specific threat to the status quo”.

The violence often takes the form of “corrective” rape – using rape as a way of punishing women and “curing” them of their sexual orientation.
In his foreword to the report, chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, Jody Kollapen, says: “It is a matter of great disquiet that 15 years into our democracy these kind of attacks continue to happen.”

The case of the rape and murder of former Banyana Banyana star Eudy Simelane, widely reported as a hate crime, is one of many the report says.
In April last year, Simelane’s body was found in a river near Kwa-Thema township, on the East Rand. She was gang-raped and stabbed 25 times.
Simelane was an out lesbian and human rights campaigner.

The report quotes her friend Pretty: “Straight after I found out what happened to her, I went to the field where it all happened, where they raped and stabbed her.

“Her blood and clothes were still everywhere, but the police had just left it all there. I will never forget her dad on his hands and knees wiping up her blood with his hands.”

Another victim, Phumla from Soweto, was gang raped in order to “cure” her of her sexual orientation. Phumla says lesbians are constantly insulted and beaten if they walk alone.

“You are constantly reminded that you are a bitch, that you deserve to be raped. They yell, ‘if I rape you then you will go straight’, that ‘you will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learned to be a real woman’.”

Vanessa Ludwig of the Triangle Project – a Cape Town-based nongovernmental organisation that works to end discrimination against and within the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered community – says that the problem of corrective rape needs to be placed in the context of a general “epidemic of rape in this country” and the rise of a particular type of “violent machismo”.

According to statistics on the People Against Women Abuse website, a woman is raped every 26 seconds in SA.

Ludwig says men use different excuses to rape women: to cure them of lesbianism, because their skirts are too short, because they wore trousers.
But ultimately, Ludwig says, rape is about “power and privilege”. Men “feel they have a right to assert control over women’s bodies”.

She also attributes violence against gays and lesbians to heterosexism – an “ideological system, that denies, denigrates and stigmatises any nonheterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community”.

The Action Aid report also says that black lesbians from townships are particularly at risk.

“While 44% of white lesbians from the Western Cape lived in fear of sexual assault, 86% of their black counterparts felt the same.”

The report recommends that the government “recognises hate crimes against lesbians and transgender women as a specific crime category”.

But the police don’t record whether a rape was motivated by homophobia or not. Ludwig says legal recognition of the crime would help to track the problem and understand what motives it.

“This would help us know what kind of education and training is necessary out there”, she says.

Kerry Williams, an attorney at Webber Wentzel, says in addition to a separate category for the crime, it is also necessary for the police to have “policies and directives in place to guide investigations into hate crimes”.

She says the police need to be trained to ask relevant questions such as whether there was hate speech preceding or accompanying the crime.

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation, LGBT

Global Impact:

South Africa