“Corrective Rape” in South Africa: Not Getting Better

I am sorry that I said this a little while ago, when South African LGBTQ activists met with government leaders to talk about corrective rape, a widespread practice in that region:

There’s no word yet on the outcome of the meeting; it may be too much to hope that all activists’ demands were met. But it’s not too much to hope that with the government finally meeting with LGBT activists, the road may be paved for further efforts to stop corrective rape and diminish its commonality.

I am sorry because things in South Africa have not improved since then. In fact,a recent update shows that the corrective rape problem there is growing, in both numbers and ferocity. This is all occurring in a nation where laws about gay people are a fantasy compared to ours – so it’s part of a heavy societal, and not legislative, backlash against the gay community – and the lesbian community in particular. And it’s an incredibly violent manifestation. The homophobia that’s being experienced is complex: other regions in Africa have had more widespread movements against the gay community, and they appear to be a big influence on this one.

South Africa has a complicated history with respect to homophobia, and colonial rule brought about institutionalized homophobia in the form of laws and gay sex bans. This might be ancient history for the progressive laws of South Africa now, but it sets a tone for anti-gay violence and it is where it originated for the region.

The stories are truly chilling. The contempt, and rage, felt toward the lesbian community in South Africa is pretty devastating:

In South Africa, more than 30 lesbians have been killed in “corrective rape” cases since 1998, yet only one case has resulted in a conviction. By some estimates, at least 10 lesbians are raped or assaulted every week in the Cape Town area alone. In one of the most notorious cases, a gang of men raped and murdered 31-year-old Eudy Simelane, a lesbian who played on South Africa’s national women’s soccer team. She was stabbed 25 times in the face, legs and chest.

According to survivors, the attackers often shout that they are “teaching a lesson” to their lesbian victims, or showing them “how to be a real woman.” Many victims never report the attacks to the police, fearing that they will be mocked or abused.

Even in schools, many young boys believe that lesbians need to be raped to “correct” their sexual orientation, according to the South African Human Rights Commission. “A culture of rape is being passed down to younger generations of South African men,” said a report by ActionAid, an international rights group. “Women are forced to conform to gender stereotypes or suffer the consequences.” […]

The South African courts and police have been slow to respond to the attacks on lesbians. One court case, involving the murder of 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana by a gang of about 20 men who wanted to “correct” her sexuality, has been postponed 33 times and has dragged on for five years without a resolution.

One case has finally sparked global attention. Millicent Gaika, a 30-year-old lesbian in a township near Cape Town, was raped and beaten for five hours by a man who tried to strangle her with barbed wire. “I know you are a lesbian,” the man told her. “You are not a man. You think you are, but I am going to show you. You are a woman.”

These stories are a reminder, and are proof, that identifying corrective rape as a hate crime would be no understatement. And that’s exactly what the LGBTQ activists in South Africa are trying to do.

Ndumie Funda is leading the challenge against corrective rape, inspired to do so by the practice’s impact on her fiancee. She herself is in extreme danger, and has faced a brunt of verbal threats. When she formed a human rights organization, she was forced into hiding. But she has not stopped:

While the threat of violence and prison is forcing many African gays to go underground, the war is not over. In a few South African black townships, lesbian volunteers are going door-to-door to raise awareness of their issues. A growing coalition of rights groups is fighting against “corrective rape.” And after the global petition produced so many thousands of e-mails that the government pleaded for it to stop, Ms. Funda and other activists were granted a two-hour meeting with senior Justice Ministry officials on March 14.

The officials promised Ms. Funda that they would take action on the corrective-rape issue, including setting up a meeting with top police commanders. “The meeting was exciting,” she said. “It was great.”

I may have been too hopeful about that meeting, but I stand my ground that these activists are some of the most amazing women in the world. Corrective rape cannot continue, in any region of the world, and these activists have the fire to keep fighting. (All of my heart is with them.)

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


    • I watched that video a few months ago. I pretty much cried the whole way through.

      I was surprised but glad that ESPN played the story.
      These women are so brave to share their stories, especially because of the danger they face in doing so.

    • They’re all incredibly heroic; I just don’t know how they do it. Ndumie Funda knows what she risks every day, and yet she goes on trying. She’s helped enough women recover from ‘corrective rape’ – and even had to watch her partner die as a result of it – to know *exactly* what risk she is taking simply in being openly gay. Helping the victims of corrective rape to heal and supporting them through court cases makes the risk that much greater. She’s been threatened by Millicent Gaika’s rapist because she helped Gaika through her court case against him. So many people know where she lives. I’m so afraid that if things don’t change in South Africa soon, this amazing woman will be the next Eudy Simelane.

  1. Great article. I am South African and live in Cape Town. One of my good friends started Cape Town lesbians (www.capetownlesbians.co.za) which is basically a community of girls who do social things. Through this group, my girlfriend organised a day trip into the township where we had a bbq with ndumie and all the girls of her shelter called ‘luleki sizwe foundation’. The girls welcomed us and we even enjoyed a game of soccer with the luleki sizwe soccer team. Ndumie’s work is so inspiring. Sadly she only has a small one bedroom house in the township at the moment and I know there are plans to build something bigger so the girls can stay there. Right now if someone needs a place to stay Ndumie makes them a bed in her lounge. To donate or for more info go to http://www.lulekisizwe.com :-) They are in very poor conditions. Thank you for writing about this. As a South African lesbian I think this is something especially close to our hearts, but ultimately it affects ALL lesbians.

  2. Thank you for this article. As a South African and as a lesbian it is something very close to my heart. However, at the end of the day, it affects ALL lesbians.
    A friend of mine set up Cape Town Lesbians (www.capetownlesbians.co.za) and though this group, my girlfriend organised for a whole lot of woman in cape Town to visit Ndumie’s shelter in the township (Nyanga). It is called luleki sizwe foundation and you can donate or find more info here: http://www.lulekisizwe.com

    They are in very poor conditions and Ndumie only has a small one bedroom house at the moment. Now when someone is in need she makes them a bed in her lounge for the night. I know she has plans to build a big shelter sometime in the future where all the girls can stay.

    On our visit, Ndumie and the luleki sizwe girls welcomed us with open arms and we even played soccer with the luleki sizwe soccer team. We had a braai, ate lunch and all danced together. The whole neighbourhood was welcoming and families came to watch the soccer and dance with us. Later ndumie told us that she was so impressed and moved by her neighbours reaction to a visit from a group of lesbians because at previous gatherings they had always been met with violence and anger, sometimes even throwing rocks at ndumie and her friends.

    South Africa has also just launched it’s own gay flag, in 2010. Proceeds from the sale of the flag go to ndumie’s shelter. They flags fly proudly over her house in Nyanga, it is beautiful. http://p2-ink.com/

    Thank you again for the article. Kat x

    • Kat, thank-you for this comment. I love that AS is a global community and there are members who can provide their local perspective and insight the way you have. As a woman, and as a lesbian, it makes me feel a little more connected to these issues and heightens my understanding. I was planning on donating to the luleki sizwe foundation today. I am continuously impressed by the courage and strong moral fiber of women around the world. Thanks for heightening my perspective.

  3. It’s a good thing that there exist defences against rape, like this :http://www.antirape.co.za/

    But I’m still worried about some of the myths on that website, for example, they claim: “There is no recorded rape of a women carrying a walking stick or umbrella – these are definitely deterrents!”

    Which I’m pretty sure is a stretch from the truth, because of the very low reporting of rapes in South Africa, but anyways, ladies, never go outsides without an umbrella.

  4. Of all the articles on AS, articles like this are the most important to me because they highlight important issues around the world and heighten my perspective and awareness. People like Ndumie Funda have some serious courage. Beautiful people doing beautiful things.

    I do some micro lending through Kiva and was going to start shifting some of these funds to support small entrepreneurial women of south africa.

  5. It would be great if I were at an age I could even go fight for womens rights in africa, i mean I know of a good program to go through. But for now, just my buddy is going.. I cant believe people even have to debate this. We are all human for gods sakes, why the hate.

  6. I am a black South African lesbian and I can tell you from first hand experience that it is by all means not easy. Putting aside the idea that most men in our country believe in corrective rape, I am ashamed to say that most of the guys I grew up with have always said that a roll in the hay would straighten anyone up. They don’t take my sexuality seriously and as they say, I’m too pretty to be lesbian so its only a phase im going through. The most painful part is that gay marriage is legal in our country but with the amount of discrimintion and disapproval from the communities and families it’s pretty much like putting a piece of cheese in a mouse trap and saying there’s your supper enjoy. I believe that when the government educates my fellow South Africans about what the LGBT community is all about and spreads the correct positive image publicly only then will people start to see that it is not a disease that can be cured and that it is not something you chose but its what you are.

  7. Pingback: Artist Attack! Zanele Muholi Boldly Archives the Difficult Love of South Africa’s Black Lesbian Community – Sustainability Now

  8. Pingback: Artist Attack! Zanele Muholi Boldly Archives the Difficult Love of South Africa’s Black Lesbian Community – Sustainability Now

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