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

"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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