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‘Corrective Rape’: Fighting a South African Scourge

5 minute read
Lee Middleton / Cape Town

It was around 11 p.m. on a Friday in Gugulethu — a township on the edge of Cape Town — and Millicent Gaika, 30, was almost home when a man she recognized stopped her and asked for a cigarette. Gaika obliged. The man then pushed her into a nearby shack and beat and raped her for five hours. Gaika later told police that throughout the assault, her attacker repeatedly said, “You think you’re a man, but I’m going to show you you’re a woman.” Charged with rape, the 43-year-old man is scheduled to go to court on March 15.

Gaika is a rarity in South Africa, indeed in all of Africa, as an openly gay woman. And since her attack, which took place in 2009, she has become something of an icon in the battle against the South African phenomenon called “corrective rape.” Virtually unknown to the rest of the world at the time of Gaika’s ordeal, corrective rape has since become a hot issue. Through online campaigns, nearly a million people have joined local activists in demanding that the South African government recognize corrective rape as a hate crime. But with so few cases of homophobic violence resulting in trials — and of those, almost none ending in conviction — the activists have a long fight ahead of them.

(See pictures of South Africa after 15 years of ANC rule.)

Zukiswa Gaca’s attacker was also someone she knew. A soft-spoken 20-year-old who wears her jeans baggy and her head shaved, Gaca is from Khayelitsha, another sprawling squatter camp outside the city center. When she was raped by an acquaintance in 2009, he told her he was “teaching her a lesson.” “I don’t feel safe anywhere,” she says. “I have to always know where I’m going, who I’m going with. I don’t trust anyone.”

South Africa should be a beacon of tolerance. Its constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the country was the first in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage. That broadmindedness should echo even more loudly in Cape Town, the gay mecca of Africa, with its annual gay-pride march and fashionable gay-nightclub district, De Waterkant.

(See pictures of the gay-rights movement in the U.S.)

But in the townships on the city’s outskirts, another reality reigns. The rate of violence against women in South Africa is among the highest in the world. Human-rights organizations estimate that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and say that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported — which is to say that the average South African woman is more likely to be raped than complete secondary school. A survey by South Africa’s Medical Research Council in June 2009 found that 1 in 4 South African men admitted to having “had sex with a woman when she didn’t consent,” and 46% of those said they had done so more than once.

Gays and lesbians are a particular target in South Africa, as they are across Africa, where traditional social conservatism is being distilled into an angry homophobia. The first case of homophobic violence to gain national prominence in South Africa was the 2006 murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, 19, who was clubbed, stoned and beaten to death by a mob of 20 young men. On Monday, dozens of demonstrators gathered to protest the fact that the nine men accused of Nkonyana’s murder still haven’t been sentenced — a court adjourned with yet another delay, the 32nd time the trial has been postponed. Of the 31 lesbians murdered in South Africa since 1998, the only case to result in a conviction was that of Eudy Simelane, the star player for Banyana Banyana, South Africa’s national women’s soccer team, who was gang-raped and murdered outside Johannesburg in 2008. Rights activists estimate that there are 10 corrective rapes a week just in Cape Town — a city of 2.5 million people.

“We accept that there is room for improvement, but that does not mean that the situation has gotten out of hand,” says Minister of Justice spokesperson Tlali Tlali, despite the country’s moniker as the “rape capital of the world.” Activists vehemently disagree with Tlali’s statement, and almost 1 million signatures from 163 countries gathered by the sites Change.org and Avaaz.org seem to have persuaded the government to act: the Justice Ministry has finally agreed to a meeting on the issue of corrective rape. With hopes of tackling the intersecting issues of sexual violence, homophobic violence and hate crimes, a host of organizations have come together to develop a national action plan to be proposed at the meeting, set to take place on March 14 — the day before Millicent Gaika’s trial. “We won’t stop until the President reads new legislation to the country,” says Ndumie Funda, who heads the support group Luleki Sizwe and who was the fiancée of a victim of corrective rape.

(See pictures of justice for rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

Real justice may require more than new legislation, however. A sea change in attitudes, inside governments and across communities, is what is needed, says Gugulethu resident Ambatha Ntloko. “Lesbians get raped and killed because it is accepted by the community and by our culture,” he says. “But the world is changing, and people need to change along with it.”

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