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The motive for the murder: hate of lesbians

It’s nothing new that lesbians and gays become victims of violence, rape and even murder in South Africa. What is new is that a court has punished such a crime appropriately as a hate crime with homophobia as motive.

By Friederike Wyrwich

In Cape Town in February, four young men were sentenced to 18 years of prison each for the murder of a 19-year-old lesbian woman. In similar cases, murderers had received long prison sentences, but this time, the court acknowledged homophobia as the motive for the murder. In the grounds for the judgement, the judge explained that violence against minorities was not accepted in South Africa, and the sentence should be seen as a clear signal in that sense.

The murder took place in a similar context as the so-called “corrective rapes”. According to the organisation Human Rights Watch, “corrective rapes” are forced sex with men who want to “change” their lesbian victims into heterosexual women, basically “converting” them through rape to heterosexuality.

These rapes are a sad normality for lesbian women in South Africa, says the founder of a women’s football club in Cape Town with many lesbian players. According to her, about a third of the members are rape vicitims, which shows the dimension of this huge problem. Most cases are not reported. There are no official statistics on this matter. For a long time, the topic has been discussed in internet forums, but apart from that, there was complete silence in the African media, in South African politics and also in international ­development cooperation – the usual argument being that black women in South Africa are frequent victims of sexual violence anyway.

The latest report of Human Rights Watch shows that, in cases of sexual violence, “lesbians and transgender men are most often attacked by strangers, recent acquaintances, and sometimes by friends”. According to the report, in the townships, lesbians are practically considered fair game, and the police takes no action. Victims tell of the inefficency of the police when persecuting these crimes and their repeated traumatisation by the police during interrogation – often enough, policemen are less interested in the circumstances of the offence, but rather in the particular ways of lesbian sex.

But black lesbians with little resources know how to use new media. It has become apparent that the international public does not consider the day-to-day violence against lesbians in South African townships acceptable. In 2010, an online petition by the Cape Town-based organisation “Luleki Sizwe”, which supports raped lesbian women, collected more than 170,000 signatures by enraged users in very short time. They demanded that the South African Ministry of Justice acknowledge that so-called “corrective rapes” are hate crimes. The result of this online petition was that South African media paid more attention to the problem and that a government task force was established.

That “corrective rapes” and related murders are now considered hate crimes is a great achievement for the activists who, since the murder of 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana on 4 February 2006, demanded adequate sentences for the perpetrators.

It is ironic that South Africa’s constitution is a model concerning the equality of all sexual orientations, but a great part of society, including churches, police, schools and ministries, does not acknowledge this stance. The recent judgement of the Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Court shows that violence against sexual minorities will not be tolerated any longer, and perpetrators cannot count on a culture of impunity any more. This is a great victory for all women who suffer from sexual violence.

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