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Corrective rape and violence against lesbians in South Africa

By Kate Walton - posted Tuesday, 20 September 2011

It is estimated that more than ten lesbians are raped by men every week in Cape Town, South Africa's legislative capital.

If over ten lesbians are raped weekly just in one city, how many same-sex-attracted women are the target of 'corrective rape' each week throughout South Africa? Or throughout the whole of Africa?

Corrective rape, its practisers claim, can 'cure' a lesbian of her sexual orientation, apparently through showing her what it's like to have sex with a man. Worryingly, there are now even reports of families organising for their lesbian relatives to be raped as a form of punishment for their behaviour.


On the legislative side of things, little seems to have improved since I last wrote about the issue, with no new laws on the books and few charges being laid against accused rapists. The Guardian writes that one case, in which a 19-year-old lesbian was raped and murdered, has been "postponed more than 30 times in five years".

However, the South African government has recently met with organisations fighting corrective rape in order to discuss how to deal with the issue. The meetings resulted in a task force and an intervention plan – one good piece of news amongst few.

Rape is always about control, dominance, and the insubordination of women. Sometimes it is also about revenge or punishment. In addition to these, corrective rape has one other important element to it – the (patriarchal) affirmation of 'natural' forms of sexuality. Corrective rape is not just about attempting to turn gay women straight, but is crucially also about reminding lesbians that their lifestyle is 'unnatural', that they are not men and never will be, and thus should not be attracted to women. For men who feel offended by lesbianism, corrective rape is a political act. Corrective rape gives these men a way of showing that there is no place for lesbians in their community.

"African cultures and black cultures are not built around people but communities, while anything to do with identity is connected to individuals. Being gay is a very personal issue that involves someone wanting to identify themselves as something and the community often stands against it." - Godwyns Onwuchekwa, Justice for Gay Africans (via)

A significant proportion of corrective rape is actually also gang-rape, committed by groups of up to eight men at once in the case of Noxolo Nkosana. Is this because these rapists feel as though they've got something to prove? That they're doing something worthwhile? Or maybe is it because more men means more masculinity and more ways to cure a lesbian or punish her for the way she lives?

There's something else that needs to be mentioned. It's the fact that the targets of corrective rape in South Africa are overwhelmingly black women. I am yet to hear of a single non-black lesbian accusing a man of corrective rape – perhaps it is simply not reported, however, and if I am mistaken, please let me know. Nonetheless, the suggestion stands that the men involved in corrective rape – who are, as far as I am aware, black men – feel an additional sense of power, responsibility and ownership over 'their' women. They will tolerate white South African lesbians because they are not threatening their black 'African' tradition, however they might define it, but cannot abide by the existence of black lesbians because they make them feel threatened, not just as a man, but as a black man living in a society where homosexuality is seen as a foreign evil.


The prevalence of corrective rape in South Africa, then, needs to be dealt with on multiple levels: governmental, through legislation and the denunciation of the practice; judicial, through better follow-through on charges of corrective rape; gender, through examining masculinity and reforming or removing patriarchal elements of society; and racial, through questioning ideas of ethnic identities and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, this is an issue in which encouraging South African lesbians to 'come out' will solve nothing. In fact, doing so would probably make things worse, as almost all of the targets of corrective rape have been out lesbians. Many have girlfriends and are well-known in their community.

Decreasing levels of corrective rape requires some serious education programs to be devised and implemented – fast. Men, as well as society in general, need to be convinced of the facts about homosexuality – not only that it is natural and not foreign, but also that the rationale behind 'raping lesbians straight' is illogical. Even if men come to believe only the latter, it will go a long way towards stopping corrective rape in South Africa.

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About the Author

Kate is a writer, documentary and live music photographer, and part-time Human Rights student. Her work focuses on human rights and social issues, and particularly explores gender and sexuality. She eats copious amounts of spicy Asian food, speaks varying levels of six languages, and thinks she might have been an ornithologist in another life. She blogs at

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