As a young African woman, I sit at my desk in Johannesburg trying to make sense of the recent international shockwave surrounding rape, and what it means for lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in South Africa.
Recently, international media focused on two gang-rapes, first with the fatal sexual assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23 year-old medical student, by six men on a bus in Delhi, India on December 16, 2012. Six weeks later, on February 2nd, South African and international media moved to the gang-rape and murder of Anene Booysen, a 17-year-old woman from Bredasdorp, South Africa. While sexual violence tends to be hidden in private spaces, the public and brutal nature of Jyoti and Anene’s attacks drew a spotlight and incited public outrage. In both India and South Africa, the widespread international coverage laid bare tragic epidemics of gender-based violence.
In South Africa, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women are disproportionately subjected to the kind of brutal violence faced by Jyoti and Anene. So rigid are the gender and sexual norms in South African society, that stepping "out of bounds" can result in sexual assault or murder. These rapes are often touted as corrective by perpetrators, some of whom report being regarded as heroes in their communities following their brutal enforcement of gender norms.
While homophobic and transphobic sentiments seek to minimize the gravity of rape of LBT people, the fact remains — rape is rape. And, thanks to the work of women’s and LGBT civil society organizations in South Africa, this violence against LGBT people is increasingly being exposed and denounced.
What is lacking is not so much awareness, but meaningful action by the South African government. Progressive national laws, such as protections for "all" people in South Africa’s constitution, are not enough; they must be implemented and enforced in a non-discriminatory manner. Likewise, South Africa’s commitment to tackling sexual violence under regional and international human rights treaties, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, must be backed by full-fledged government efforts to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice, police officers and health workers are trained to deal with all cases of sexual violence, and the implementation of policies are monitored and evaluated . These recommendations are reiterated by both Human Rights Watch as well as the ANC Womens League.
Recent moves by the South African government suggest that real change may be afoot. Following the rape and murder of Anene Booysens, both President Jacob Zuma and the ANC Women’s League denounced the violence and claimed they would take "action on every possible front" This past week, South Africa also affirmed its commitment during meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women as one of the first countries to sign a United Nations pledge on the full implementation of laws and strategies to combat violence against women and girls. However, once the international spotlight moves on, will they follow through?
According to advocates working with LBT women, the rape and murder of lesbian women has been met with virtual silence from the South African government for more than a decade. These attacks, often undocumented and unpunished, leave LBT people sidelined from dialogues on gender-based violence. Now, as the government announces plans for action, it must seek input from LBT activists and recognize the unique needs of LBT people.
These needs stem from the particular intersection at which LBT people stand in South African society. We live in a context of excessive violence as a result of a history of systematic violence perpetrated by the apartheid government. Women face violence as a result of patriarchal norms, men’s sense of entitlement over women’s bodies, and culturally inscribed notions of masculinity and feminity. Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, are punished for who they love, and how they express their deeply held sense of gender identity. Add to this, conditions of poverty faced by black lesbian, bisexual and transgender people living in townships and non-urban areas, and you have a population extremely vulnerable to sexual violence.
And what of the perpetrators of this sexual violence? Some theorize that a backdrop of violence, patriarchy, and social and economic conditions has created a "crisis of masculinity" for men. And, that in order to regain a sense of control, some attempt to assert their masculinity by resorting to the rape of women and/or LBT people. The phenomenon of raping LBT people has wrongly been termed corrective or curative rape, as perpetrators express the desire to rid LBT people of their non-normative sexual orientation and gender identities. Regardless of economic, social, and cultural forces, rape is wrong. As a threat to the right to exist and a violation of physical security, sexual violence puts at risk the realization of a person’s entire range of human rights.
To be sure, it will take more than government action to upend the pattern of sexual violence against women and LBT people. Increased activism and solidarity within civil society is needed to condemn sexual violence and demand justice. Such community activism was the frontline against the injustices of apartheid and contributed to the emancipation of our nation. Now, we need similar activism to emancipate the bodies of all women and LBT people who are violated and daily stripped of their dignity.
Let us understand rape for the violation of human rights that it is, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Let us not lose momentum. Let us continue to mobilise within our communities to address the contributing factors of rape within our society. Let us pursue solutions that target the root causes of this violence, not victims. Let us unite in compassion, and work to sustain public pressure and political impetus to ensure that outrage over rape does not fade into the background while another soul is destroyed or another life lost. Let us remember that rape is rape, no matter who it is perpetrated against.
By Kate Muwoki, Program Officer Africa region,
International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
The author may be reached at Kmuwoki@IGLHRC.org