In-depth: Closing the gap: Gender-Based Violence in South Africa
SOUTH AFRICA: Tide of violence against women drowns out homophobia
Gay women are often overlooked in national anti-violence campaigns
Johannesburg, 1 February 2007 (PlusNews) - Violence against women is one of the most pervasive forms of discrimination in South Africa and there is mounting concern that some assaults might be driven by prejudice against their sexual orientation.
Research into gender-based violence is still largely limited to heterosexual couples, according to Funeka Soldaat, a lesbian activist from Khayelitsha, a township about 30km west of Cape Town.
Although no statistics exist to prove how many assaults are launched against lesbians, homophobic attacks appear to take place more frequently in predominantly black townships.
"I was pinned down and gang-raped by four men early one evening in 1995, on my way home from a World AIDS Day rally. My rapists kept swearing at me and saying, 'we will make you a real woman'. It was not too far from my house and all I could do was close my mind to what was happening to me," Soldaat told IRIN PlusNews.
Two years previously, she had been attacked and stabbed 11 times by a group of young men from her community and was hospitalised for three weeks, including a week in intensive care. Soldaat maintained that her experiences were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and said many cases went unreported out of a fear of secondary discrimination by officers of the law.
EQUALITY AND THE LAW
South Africa's constitution is internationally recognised as one of the most progressive and inclusive in the world, and the government has shown an unprecedented commitment to acknowledging and upholding the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) citizens. On 1 December 2006 the country became one of only five to legalise homosexual marriages.
However, Marlow Valentine, outreach coordinator for the Triangle Project, a local LGBT service organisation, said there was a vacuum between what was stated in the constitution and what was actually happening on the ground.
"Even though the national police force banned sexual discrimination in its ranks, and set about instilling a culture of rights awareness among the general public shortly after 1995, a worrying presence of indifference towards the rights of gay people is still displayed by policemen and -women," he said.
Valentine commented that the attitudes of some officers had contributed to continuing mistrust and suspicion of the police by LGBT people.
"Reporting my cases to the South African Police Service (SAPS) was not easy - they give you the feeling that you are to blame, and deserved what you got for being a lesbian. I felt betrayed by the very system that was meant to protect me," Soldaat recalled.
About six years ago, the police service developed a 'Human Rights and Policing' programme that included training workshops and packages of videos, posters and booklets mentioning sexual orientation among the constitutional rights to be protected. These were to be distributed to police departments across the country, but the SAPS has been slow to develop trainers and start conducting workshops.
Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) deputy provincial chairman, Xolile Marimani, confirmed that the union, in cooperation with the Triangle Project, and local and international gay police officers, had recently launched an initiative to encourage greater tolerance of sexual diversity in their respective services.
Soldaat was less optimistic about the new effort, and suggested that the attitude of many policemen was often because they lived in communities like Khayelitsha, where the general sentiment was that homosexuality was "un-African".
"Most of the lesbians in my community are being subjected to 'corrective rape', in the hope that it will cure us of something which the rapists believe we have copied from white people," she said.
PAINFULLY TAKING A STAND
Sexual preference has become a matter of life and death for some gay women living in Khayelitsha: in February 2006, a gang of young men accosted Zoliswa Nkonyana outside her home, where they stoned, beat and stabbed her to death for being a lesbian.
Soldaat is taking a stand and has refused to be silenced by her perpetrators, saying they will have won if she conforms or moves to another area. "I engage in public awareness through my community organisation, Women in Action, so that people can learn to accept and understand gay and lesbian issues."
Valentine and the Triangle Project's outreach programme are targeting schools in townships throughout the Western Cape Province in an effort to change the attitude of boys during their formative years.
He urged the authorities to state more clearly and unequivocally the governments stance, not only on homophobia but also on the escalating violence against women.