Being Gay in South Africa, Lesbians Fear 'Corrective' Rape

South Africa is considered the most progressive country in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country boasts a developed economy, and has a post-apartheid constitution that stresses equal rights for everyone.

It's one of the few countries in the world with a specific provision in its constitution prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians.

It's also the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa where there are openly gay bars.

But behind the gay-friendly exterior of South Africa, lies the reality: a society that remains, for the most part, virulently homophobic.

Like much of the rest of the continent, attitudes towards homosexuality range from being viewed as unnatural or "un-African" to people calling it "a condition" that comes from and is encouraged by the West. Nowhere is this more evident than in the practice of "corrective" rape: men raping women who have come out as lesbians in an effort to "turn them straight." Many of these woman end up being murdered.

"Corrective rape is a horrific confluence of two things in South Africa: violence against women and a rising tide of homophobia and hatred against homosexuals," Laura Turquet, a women's rights advocate, told ABC News.

Turquet researched and authored a recent report for ActionAid, an international anti-poverty organization, focusing primarily on women's rights. The report found that in the last 10 years at least 31 women had been killed in sexual-orientation hate crimes.

But human rights groups say that number is deceptive. Even though the South African constitution specifically prohibits discrimination against homosexuals, crimes against gays and lesbians are not categorized as hate crimes under the legal system, so violence against lesbians is often not recorded.

"Some of the women we spoke to said that when they went to the police to report being abused sexually, they told us that the police were more interested in asking the women why they were lesbians than investigating the assault," Turquet said.

To date, of the 31 reported cases of corrective rape and subsequent murders, only one person has been convicted. One man pleaded guilty to the rape and murder of Eudy Simelane, a one-time national soccer player and outspoken gay right's advocate. She was murdered in 2007, found gang raped with 25 stab wounds throughout her body. Four other men have been charged.

The trial for three of the men, who have pleaded not guilty is under way. But despite friends' testimony that Simelane had endured constant threats for being an out lesbian, the judge in her killer's case refused to acknowledge that it was a motivating factor, reportedly saying during sentencing that her sexual orientation had "no significance" in her murder.

Police No Help to Victims of 'Corrective Rape'

Many victims of corrective rape said they often don't even bother going to the police. Phumla, a resident of the Soweto township outside of Johannesburg said she was raped by men she trusted after accepting a ride home from soccer practice. Instead of taking her home, they took her to a house where another man awaited and raped her. She said they repeatedly told her they were "teaching her a lesson" throughout the attack.

"When it happened to me, 'corrective' rape felt like the worst kind of violence that someone could have inflicted on my person," said Phumla, "As lesbians, we know we are in danger, but we still let those guys drive us home. So I didn't report it to the police because I felt like we couldn't."

Rape, in general, is a pervasive problem in South Africa. There were more than 50,000 reported rapes last year, but women's rights groups estimate only one in nine in rapes are reported. Some statistics run as high as 500,000 and estimate that a woman in South Africa is raped every 26 seconds.

Yet most rapists continue to go free. A study conducted by Tshwaranang, a legal advocacy center focused on ending violence against women in South Africa, showed that in the Johannesburg area, for every 25 men who are tried for rape, 24 go free.

Even the country's new president Jacob Zuma has faced allegations of rape. Three years ago, Zuma was acquitted of raping a family friend and anti-AIDS activist. He was criticized by women's rights organizations for comments made during his testimony. He told the judge that his accuser wore a mini-skirt to his house and revealed her thigh, indicating that she wanted to have sex with him. He said that, according to the Zulu culture, the tribe from which he belongs, his accuser was aroused and he was obligated to have sex with her. "In the Zulu culture, you cannot just leave a woman if she is ready," he testified.

Despite the outrage from South African human right's groups, his insistence that he was simply behaving as an African man -- even testifying in his native Zulu, just increased his popularity with the general population. Turquet says, in spite of South Africa's progressive constitution and legislation regarding women and homosexual rights, the legal system still reflects cultural values and "is lagging behind."

Women's Bodies Have Become War Zones

As president, Zuma has selected more women than the previous administration for Cabinet positions and has pledged his commitment to protecting the rights of women, but there are signs that attitudes toward rape and homosexuality throughout the population remain the same.

Last year the South Africa Human Rights Commission issued a report on primary and secondary school violence. One of the findings pointed to "a growing phenomenon" of the acceptance of corrective rape from the next generation of South African men.

Phumi Metwa, director of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Project, says she thinks the violence is actually getting worse. Her organization has tried to educate women and men on gender and sexual orientation sensitivity. But she says as a lesbian, she often feels threatened herself, like a "time bomb" could go off at anytime, making her a victim. "Women's bodies have become war zones," said Metwa. "We are trying to say that if women work together, we can change attitudes, but for now, we live in fear every day."

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