South Africa’s brave struggle against lesbian hate crimes

A march against lesbian hate crimes in Cape Town in January. (WNV / Ray Mwareya-Mhondera)

A march against lesbian hate crimes in Cape Town in January. (WNV / Ray Mwareya-Mhondera)

South Africa may be one of just 10 countries in the world to permit same-sex marriage — not to mention the only country in Africa — but it is also a place where the assault, rape and murder of lesbians remains a troublingly common issue. At the same time, however, a brave effort is taking shape to counter this hatred and violence.

Among the groups leading the charge is Luleki Sizwe, a small but powerful non-profit organization based in Cape Town, whose name — when translated from the widely-spoken Xhosa language — means “Correct The Country.” Founded in 2005 by Ndumie Funda, the group’s main objective is to put an end to corrective rape — a phenomenon where men rape lesbian women with the belief that it will somehow correct them of their sexuality.

Ndumie Funda became a prominent campaigner against corrective rape because of two personal tragedies that left her distraught. First, her friend Luleki Makiwane was raped by her own cousin and died of HIV complications in 2005. Makiwane’s cousin defended his actions saying he wanted to show her that she was a woman. Then, in 2007, Funda’s fiancée, Nomsa Bizana, who had been raped by a gang of men at gunpoint, died from HIV contracted during her assault.

According to Funda, who grew up facing insults and threats over her sexuality in one of South Africa’s biggest townships, the violence facing lesbians in South Africa stems not only from a male dominated culture, but the poverty found in many black townships — where the daily struggle for basic resources makes lesbians a target for discrimination. Education in these townships is also hampered by low state funding and a limited influx of teachers. That means many students fail to learn about the laws in their own country, such as those ensuring the rights of gays and lesbians.

Funda says gay men in South Africa also suffer discrimination and threats, but unlike lesbians, they have more physical strength to protect themselves from assaults. Furthermore, South Africa’s high incidence of domestic violence against all women means lesbians face a higher threat of violence in general.

Ndumie Funda of Luleki Sizwe, a South African organization working to combat the phenomenon of corrective rape. (Ndumie Funda)

Ndumie Funda of Luleki Sizwe, a South African organization working to combat the phenomenon of corrective rape. (Ndumie Funda)

The problem extends beyond poor black townships, however, as the faith based political parties in affluent white communities routinely base their election manifestos on reversing lesbian rights, which they describe as immoral. To make matters worse, police treat reports of lesbian rape as low priority. As a result, South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault. In Cape Town, a city of 2.5 million inhabitants, the watchdog group Human Rights Council of South Africa reports that there are up to 10 cases of corrective rape every week.

For Funda, that means the work of Luleki Sizwe comes with great personal risk — not only for her, but the 12 other lesbian rights workers who do clerical and campaign work for the organization.

“I’m not safe,” Funda explained. “I’m targeted — my home gets broken into, but the police don’t help. I had to sell my house in Cape Town to move to a more secure area.”

Nevertheless, Funda and her colleagues regularly visit the city’s 10 most violent townships to educate youths about lesbian rights. She also feeds and shelters lesbians who are raped, beaten or infected with HIV — all while receiving very little help from conservative faith organizations and government welfare departments.

In 2011, Luleki Sizwe launched a digital campaign on Change.org to force South Africa’s justice minister to declare corrective rape a hate crime. The petition attracted 170,000 signatures from 53 countries around the world and became one of most successful campaigns in the petition site’s early days.

Today her work is yielding some positive legislative change. The South African parliament’s justice and human rights committee has instructed every police station to open victim friendly units for anyone who has been raped. Meanwhile, public prosecutors in South Africa have been mandated by the country’s justice ministry to vigorously oppose bail in every court case involving lesbian corrective rape.

“We are surprised and encouraged to see justice ministry officials really attentive and proactive to our concerns as lesbians,” Funda said.

South African media has also stepped up to highlight lesbian rights to its audiences. The annual Cape Town Pride march is now broadcast live on radio and television stations, reaching millions who rely on radio and public television for information.

Soweto Pride 2012 participants protest against violence against lesbians with a "Dying for Justice" banner and T-shirts which read "Solidarity with women who speak out." (Wikipedia / Charles Haynes)

Soweto Pride 2012 participants protest against violence against lesbians with a “Dying for Justice” banner and T-shirts which read “Solidarity with women who speak out.” (Wikipedia / Charles Haynes)

Another prominent group promoting lesbian rights in South Africa is OUT, which has been providing health and counseling services to South Africa’s LGBT community for the last 20 years. Aside from providing information on safer sex, sexual health and sexuality counseling for the LGBT community, OUT has built a clinic in Pretoria, the South African capital, to provide emergency surgical care for those who have experienced rape and/or violent retribution.

The incident that tipped OUT into vigorous action was the 2011 murder of a 24-year-old activist who organized a gay pride march outside Johannesburg. She was stabbed to death by glass shards and dumped in a ditch, while rocks and used condoms were dumped on top of her face.

“The horrific nature of that murder gave us anger and courage,” said OUT coordinator for rape victim rehabilitation Sandile Pule. “We agreed to confront our own fears. Until then, as lesbians, we were hiding our lifestyle from the scrutinizing public — be it in bars, trains, colleges and other public platforms.”

This February, OUT organized the South Africa Hate Crimes Working Group conference, which gathered representatives of the police, courts and clinics, as well as community and religious leaders to push for laws that result in heavy jail sentences for perpetrators of hate crimes. As a result, police agreed to establish a national telephone hotline that caters specifically for hate crimes like corrective rape and xenophobic violence against foreigners living in South Africa.

According to Pule, police also agreed to recruit and even deploy openly lesbian officers in areas where hate crimes break out. “This shows a commitment to and portrayal of diversity,” she said.

Members of the Triangle Project march in Cape Town Pride 2014. (Triangle Project)

Members of the Triangle Project march in Cape Town Pride 2014. (Triangle Project)

A third group involved in the struggle against lesbian hate crimes is the Triangle Project, South Africa’s only community trust working to strengthen the constitutional and legal rights of LGBT citizens. It works in violent towns to provide legal help for victims of corrective rape and their families. According to the Triangle Project, only 20 percent of lesbians who experienced rape in South Africa last year could afford to hire an attorney, since fees can run as high as $300 per day. Meanwhile, hiring a capable pathologist to assist the prosecution in its case can cost upwards of $2,000. This is a hugely prohibitive figure for most lesbians, who suffer a joblessness rate of 79 percent due to discrimination.

Free legal counselors are provided by the state, but are often times undertrained. As a result, cases of “corrective rape” in South Africa achieved a conviction rate of just 10 percent in 2014, according to the Triangle Project.

“Many victims of lesbian hate crimes endure forced pregnancies, unsafe abortions, miscarriages or simply commit suicide,” said Pumzile Moloi, a clinical physiotherapist who works with the Triangle Project.

The Triangle Project also visits the country’s jails as part of an effort supported by prison authorities. Its mission is to educate convicted murderers, some of whom injured or took the lives of lesbian activists. Through workshops and inmate classes, the Triangle Project trains inmates to be counselors who will spread the virtues of respecting LGBT rights inside and outside of prison. Between 2012 and 2015, the Triangle Project worked in 16 of the country’s jails. Forty-four inmates are now reformed counselors, who will travel to townships educating youth about protecting the rights of the country’s LGBT community.

While such small measures have not eradicated the violence and hatred lesbians face in South Africa, let alone forced the country to respect the rights enshrined to all its citizens in the constitution, much progress has been made. The hope is South Africans will come to realize what Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe recently told Parliament: “When we reinforce lesbian rights, we also prove our respect for this amazing constitution that holds South Africa together as a progressive country.”

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