NAIROBI, Kenya, May 4, 2011 -- South African law enforcement officials today said a new task force will be formed to address crimes against homosexuals after the gang rape and murder of a young woman believed to have been a victim of "corrective rape," or men attacking lesbians to "turn them straight" and punish the women for being gay.
"The team will be charged with developing a legislative intervention plan, a public awareness strategy, and LGBTI sensitive shelters," Tlali Tlai, the chief of staff for the Ministry of Justice, told reporters.
The announcement came after a parliamentary meeting involving senior officials from the country's law enforcement, legal and social program departments.
More than 170,000 people from all around the world signed a petition calling for the South African government to act after Noxolo Nogwaza, a 24-year-old lesbian, was gang raped, stoned and stabbed to death using shards of broken glass nearly two weeks ago. The petition was sponsored by Change.org, a global human rights campaigning website.
"South Africa: Take Action to Stop 'Corrective Rape," the petition states in bold letters. "We demanded that the South African government take 'corrective rape' seriously, and they have agreed to do ... and then some," Change.org said after today's announcement.
The new task force will tackle issues such as whether crimes against the homosexual and transgender community should be considered hate crimes, whether a rape motivated by sexual orientation should receive a harsher sentence and increased sensitivity training for police, social workers and judiciary officials. The team is scheduled to begin work in July.
While activists applauded the South African government, many people say the actions should have been taken years ago. Corrective rape was first brought to the country's consciousness after the murder and rape of Eudy Simelane, a one-time national soccer player and outspoken gay rights advocate.
She was murdered in 2008, found gang raped with 25 stab wounds throughout her body in the same township where Nogwaza would later be killed. Four men were charged in the previous attack, with one serving a life sentence and another imprisoned for 22 years after pleading guilty.
But despite friends' testimony that Simelane had endured constant threats for being an out lesbian, one of the judges refused to acknowledge that it was a motivating factor, reportedly saying during sentencing that although the crime was heinous, he saw no evidence her sexual orientation played a part in her murder.
No one has been apprehended in the Nogwaza case.
"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 nearly two years ago.
In 2009, Turquet researched and authored a report for ActionAid, an international anti-poverty organization, focusing primarily on women's rights. At that time, the report found that at least 31 women had been killed in sexual-orientation hate crimes in the previous decade, but warned that the number was deceptive because 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.
Nogwaza's murder shows that not much has changed, Human Rights Watch and other activist groups say, calling her attack a hate crime. "Nogwaza's death is the latest in a long series of sadistic crimes against lesbians, gay men and transgender people in South Africa," said Dipika Nath, a researcher for Human Right's Watch's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender program.
"The vicious nature of the assault is a potent reminder that these attacks are premeditated, planned and often committed with impunity."