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South African Lesbians Targeted for Rape and Violence

In South Africa, lesbians are often targeted for rape and violence in a phenomenon some perpetrators call corrective rape – indicating they believe a lesbian’s sexual orientation can be changed through rape and violence.

In April 2008, Eudy Simelane, star of Banyana Banyana, South Africa’s female national soccer squad, was gang raped, beaten and then stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. She died. Two perpetrators received lengthy jail terms for her murder, two suspects were acquitted. Simelane was attacked because she lived an openly lesbian life, the first woman to do so in Kwa-Thema, a township east of Johannesburg.

Ndumie Fundi, founder of Lulekisiwze an organization that helps women targeted because of their sexual orientation, says that in just one township, Gugulethu near Cape Town, 10 lesbians are being raped, assaulted, or both, each week. Fundi says that in most cases, like that of Millicent Gaike, the perpetrators say they are acting out of hatred for lesbians.

"Andile raped Millicent last year in April, [Easter long weekend] for five hours,” Fundi said. “He strangled her, he threatened [to throw] her body in the river, he is going to make her pregnant and he hates the fact that she is a lesbian, and he is going to get his firstborn child from Millicent."

Many South Africans view homosexuality as alien to their traditions, culture or religious beliefs. Christians might label it as un-Christian or black South Africans as un-African, and experts say that with the along with the label comes stigma and discrimination.

Some believe that it is these views that contributed to some perpetrators adopting the term corrective rape – and it is now widely used.

Jill Henderson, Research, Advocacy and Policy Program Coordinator at Triangle, a gay and lesbian health and development non-governmental organization, tells VOA that South Africans should be very cautious about using the term.

"Because it names an act of violence using the terms of reference of the perpetrator,” Henderson said. “It seems to give a greater reality to the notion that rape can be used to correct lesbians or cure them."

Some activists are demanding that the government classify lesbian rape as a hate crime and change the law to ensure more severe penalties for the crime.

Henderson says there are additional pitfalls in distinguishing between rape of women and rape of lesbians which should be seen as one crime.

"It looks at rape perpetrated against lesbians as a new phenomenon, that is seen as something quite separate from rape perpetrated against women,” Henderson added. “And I think we need to start seeing the continuities between what is happening in South Africa in terms of the rape of lesbians and the rape of women in general."

Experts say the causes of the high levels of rape and violence against women in South Africa are many, and can be found in the country’s turbulent and complex history. Henderson notes that rape is a crime of violence linked to control – which can contribute to the vulnerability of lesbians.

"My understanding of rape is that it is gender violence, and that it is linked to patriarchal systems of control and power,” said Henderson. “And I see it as means of maintaining control and power over women and their bodies. So if you think of rape in this way, then you can see why lesbians particularly are vulnerable it is because they are seen to violate the rules of gender, which describe what a woman is, how she should behave and which states that women's bodies belong to men."

Some experts say there needs to be a fundamental shift in how South African men view women before there will be any discernible improvement in combating the issue of rape. Some also note that while government policies are in general pro-women, the actions of role models and officials undermine those policies.

Some cite as an example, the case that of 19-year-old lesbian Zoliswa Nkonyane who, in February 2006, was beaten and kicked to death by about 20 young men in Khayelitsha near Cape Town. Even though suspects went on trial the same year, the case has been postponed numerous times and has still not been concluded.

Late last year Lulekisizwe launched an online petition [at] addressed to the country’s Justice Ministry, asking for the government to take the issue of lesbian rape more seriously. One hundred thirty thousand people signed the petition, prompting an appearance by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe in which he said motive crimes such as lesbian rape are irrelevant. He has not responded to a request for a meeting with Ndumie Fundi and other activists.