By Alexis Coopersmith
“I was betrayed by my best friend. He told me to come to his house for a school assignment, but when I got to the house we fought until he hit me so hard I collapsed, and then he raped me because he said I needed to stop being a lesbian.”
Nomawabo is a young South African woman and a lesbian. In her 30 years of life, she has been a victim of rape on two separate occasions: once by her friend, once by a group of men who kidnapped her at gunpoint. Her experiences are not unlike many other lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women in South Africa victimized by corrective rape—the practice of forcing sex upon a woman (or a man) because her perceived sexual orientation or gender identity does not conform to societal norms of gender roles and human sexuality. The intention of corrective rape is to “cure” the victim by convincing them of their heterosexuality through heterosexual intercourse.
Homosexuality is a crime in 38 African nations. Stricter legislation against homosexual activity and harsher punishments continue to be pursued by African leaders and political officials. Current legislation in Nigeria, for example, proposes a 14 year prison sentence for lesbian and gay couples who marry. Even witnessing a homosexual marriage or partaking in a public show of same sex affection in Nigeria could lead to a 10 year prison sentence. The bill is currently awaiting approval by President Goodluck Jonathan.
South Africa, on the other hand, boasts one of the world’s most progressive constitutions as well as the most progressive legal protection of gay rights in the African continent. Including the right to marry, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex individuals are explicitly protected by legislation in only one African nation: South Africa.
Despite such protections, corrective rape is a hate crime acknowledged primarily as a South African practice.
Over 30 women have reportedly died in attacks of corrective rape in the last 10 years in South Africa, but the real number may be devastatingly higher. The government of South Africa does not acknowledge corrective rape as a crime distinct from rape, making it impossible to discern how many acts of rape and consequent murders are actually committed in an attempt to change a person’s sexuality. Additionally, many attacks are left unreported by women and families of victims due to the social stigmatization involved with being a victim rape.
According to the official charity fighting against corrective rape in South Africa, Luleki Sizwe, more than 10 lesbians a week are raped or gang raped in South Africa’s Cape Town alone.
The question remains “Why does corrective rape occur predominately in the only African nation to promote equality and acceptance of LGBTQ individuals?”
Lesbian women are perceived to be a direct threat to the patriarchal power relations in the society as well as to culturally held norms of sexual behavior. The practice of corrective rape represents a weapon of hate that is twofold: a crime against women and a crime against sexual identities deemed to be deviant.
Social norms have replaced the law in regards to the treatment of lesbian women in South Africa as a means of social control. Citizens, men mostly, have taken on the role of “social discipliners” and feel that it is their personal responsibility to correct the undesired behavior of others. Corrective rape is an extremely violent form of disciplinary action that punishes deviant sexual identity as well as further establishes the elite standing of men in South African society. According to Morrisey, the discourse of lesbian women as a vulnerable sect of society perpetuated by the media and human rights groups has only served to escalate many men’s sense of power and privilege in society. Ultimately, it is believed by many that homosexual desires are not native to South African culture and to act upon such desires is to defy the natural role of South African women.
One corrective rape victim explained that lesbian women are constantly reminded of their abject position in society. “They yell, ‘If I rape you then you will go straight,’ that ‘You will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learned to be a real woman” (Rabkin, 2009).
Noxolo Nogwaza was a 24-year-old mother and a lesbian. Her body was found in a drainage ditch near Johannesburg on April 24, 2011. “She was raped; her body was mutilated; her eyes were pulled from their sockets; her brain was split open; and her teeth were scattered around her body.”
As the second anniversary of her death came and passed, there remained absolutely no progress in the investigation into the corrective rape and brutal death of Noxolo. Her rapists and murderers are free to walk the streets, to perpetuate the hateful discourse that motivated them to kill and to act again, just as the majority of the perpetrators of corrective rape remain unprosecuted. And unlike the case of many victims of corrective rape, Noxolo’s family has been resilient in urging the local magistrate to continue in their investigation.
Noxolo’s story is reflective of the larger failure of South Africa’s legal system to bring perpetrators to justice and to discourage men from performing such acts of brutality and to bring an end to this form of violent sexual assault. The statistic “For every 25 men accused of rape in South Africa, 24 walk free” demonstrates the gravity of the nation’s failure to implement adequate legal mechanisms to prosecute the accused rapists.
Ultimately, the efforts of corrective rape as a means of social discipline and regulator of cultural norms and values are not only blatantly unsuccessful; it robs women of their rights and often their lives and it is destructive to the social fabric of South Africa society. Perpetrators of corrective rape are often-time family members or close friends of those they victimize. Some of the rapists are teachers, officers of the law and leaders of religious institutions. Fault and apathy are woven into all aspects of South African society and until the misogynistic attitudes of lesbianism and attitudes of homosexuality as un-African are addressed and conquered corrective rape will remain an abhorrent attempt at social regulation.
Photo by Mktp