The South African government has agreed to activist demands to address the increasingly common hate crime of "corrective rape", whereby lesbians are raped by men to "cure" them of their sexual orientation.
Although statistics are lacking, gay advocacy groups estimate about 10 new cases of corrective rape occur every week in Cape Town, a city of 2.5 million.
The decision was reached during a meeting on 14 March between senior officials from the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development and grassroots activists who brought a petition signed by 170,000 supporters in 163 countries. More than 100 people gathered outside Parliament in support.
In December 2010, a lesbian activist group, Luleki Sizwe, posted a petition on www.change.org, demanding that the South African government recognize corrective rape as a hate crime. Ndumie Funda, founder of the group, said earlier attempts to gain an audience with the Ministry of Justice had failed, but within weeks of posting the petition, it became the site's most popular, and the Ministry contacted Funda to set up a meeting.
Funda said the petition came about during a moment of crisis. In April 2010, Luleki Sizwe provided a safe house for Millicent Gaika after she was brutally beaten and raped for five hours by a man who continually told her he was showing her how to be a woman. In November 2010, Gaika's assailant, out on a bail, began threatening Funda. She went into hiding for several weeks, during which time she ignored a request for help from another corrective rape victim, who subsequently committed suicide.
"The petition was in response to everything that happened in November," Funda said.
According to activists, suicide is not uncommon among victims of corrective rape, who also often experience torture, exposure to HIV and an unresponsive justice system. Last week, the case of Zoliswa Nkonyane, a 19-year-old lesbian from the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha, who was murdered in 2006, was postponed for the 32nd time.
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South Africa was the first country in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution, and the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage. However, the country also leads the world in the prevalence of violent crime, and violence against women in particular.
"We're famous as a country with beautiful laws that are not implementable," Yvette Abrahams, the commissioner for gender equality, told IRIN.
"We're sitting in a country where six women a day die at the hands of a husband or intimate partner, so if straight violence is like that, to try and get attention for homophobic violence becomes very difficult."
During the meeting with activists, ministry officials asked for details of specific cases needing immediate attention and promised to present “concrete proposals” to tackle corrective rape by the time they meet again.
“We clearly need an intervention plan,” said Praise Tsidi Kambula, the ministry’s chief director of the promotion of the rights of vulnerable groups. “It is our responsibility as a department to ensure that victims of corrective rape report these cases. We cannot do this thing alone. We need you guys to define for us what is needed.”