Rape New Weapon Against South African Lesbians
Reuters, June 28, 2004
By Gershwin Wanneburg and Dinky Mkhize
KAGISO, South Africa—Keba
Sebetoane’s distress is evident as she describes her rape by a man she had
considered a friend simply because, as a lesbian, she challenged traditional
“(If) I said ‘no’ (I am not a lesbian), I get
beaten. (If) I say ‘yes’, I get raped ... Defenseless, I kept quiet and
then it happened,” said the 17-year-old at her home in Kagiso, a poor
South Africa’s pro-gay laws are unprecedented on a
continent where many regard homosexuality as an un-African taboo. But
activists say legislation is not protecting those like Sebetoane, who pay for
their freedom at the hands of male rapists.
While hate crimes, or “gay bashing,” are common in
all societies, researchers say rape seems more prevalent in South Africa.
Activists and researchers say there are more reports of
rape targeting lesbians, particularly in black townships where they are seen
as challenging traditional male authority.
This hatred is fueled by the improving status of women in
a country where many people are unemployed, they say.
“South Africa is a sexist society and so violence is
used to strengthen the one area in which men feel they have more power—their
masculinity,” said researchers Graeme Reid and Teresa Dirsuweit in a report
based on workshops and interviews in Johannesburg townships.
“The people targeted are those who are most visibly gay
or lesbian,” Reid told Reuters. “There’s a very violent reaction to the
transgression of traditional gender roles.”
Horrific as some stories are, South African gays and
lesbians may still count themselves lucky.
Just north of the border, where Zimbabwe’s President
Robert Mugabe has called gays “lower than dogs and pigs,” sodomy is a
crime; to the west, Namibian leader Sam Nujoma has called for their arrest;
while Zanzibar off the east African coast has just outlawed homosexual acts
South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the
first in the world to recognize gay rights, and same-sex couples are now
allowed to adopt children and to be included in their partners’ wills. Last
year, however, a Human Rights Watch report criticized the government for not
speaking out against abuses and failing to ensure that gays and lesbians fully
enjoyed their rights.
Activist Donna Smith, together with other groups, has
launched a campaign, “The Rose Has Thorns,” to raise awareness about hate
crimes and urge tougher laws against them.
She says that out of 33 women interviewed by a lesbian
support group only one case was prosecuted to conviction—a sign the attacks
are not taken seriously by police and prosecutors.
“Government-funded and government-run agencies must
respond more effectively to this crisis because it is a crisis. One girl was
shot at point blank range in her head because a guy felt she was behaving too
much like a man,” Smith said.
“He was out on 150 rand ($23) bail for illegal
possession of a firearm. That’s an extreme case but that’s the kind of
response we get.”
Divided By Race, Income
President Thabo Mbeki once described South Africa as a
country of two nations—wealthy and white and poor and black.
This division is apparent among gays and lesbians. Most
whites can afford a comfortable lifestyle free from intolerance, while those
like Sebetoane remain on the fringe of society, living with the double burden
of prejudice and poverty.
Smith said officials should speak out on rapes targeting
lesbians, some of the most marginalized people in the new South Africa.
Sebetoane, for her part, is full of optimism. The high
school graduate hopes to become a scientist and came out to her family last
year, telling them: “I am a lesbian and if you love me you have to be
concerned about my happiness.”
“My only mission was for me to be happy because it
seems like everyone in this house is happy,” she told Reuters. “Why should
my life be in a closet? Why can’t I talk like somebody else. I wanted to be
(additional reporting by Hannington Osodo)
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