Last edited: February 13, 2005

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 sexual roles.

“(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 Johannesburg township.

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.”

Comparatively Well-Off

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 free.”

(additional reporting by Hannington Osodo)

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