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“Corrective Rape” in South Africa

by Judith Sijstermans

During 2010 much was said about the success of the World Cup in South Africa. But much was concealed by the celebrating and by the joy surrounding South Africa’s successful hosting and their tournament opening goal. In particular, the practice of “corrective rape” has become particularly strong within South Africa. Corrective rape is the idea that a man can rape a lesbian woman in order to “correct” their sexual orientation to make them heterosexual again. The threats made during these rapes usually allude at the idea that women will again become womanly after the rape. One more famous case of corrective rape occurred in April 2008 when the body of South African national soccer player Eudy Simelane was found with twenty five stab wounds and brutally beaten. She was one of the first openly lesbian women in her neighborhood of Johannesburg and an equality rights campaigner. Her attackers were tried, but most are not. There is an atmosphere of celebrity surrounding those who rape and one in four South African men admit being involved in a rape. Even within Simelane’s trial the judge maintained that her attack was not based on her sexual orientation, denying human rights activists efforts to draw attention to the issue of corrective rape in South Africa.

According to Change.org it is estimated that in Cape Town alone more than ten lesbian women a week are raped and that in all of South Africa, 150 women are raped daily. Even though thirty one of these corrective rapes have ended in murders of South African lesbians, Simelane’s case was the first to see a conviction. This is not an indication that the culture of corrective rape and the culture of impunity is lessening, but rather a reflection of Simelane’s popularity as a famous soccer player and community figure. In fact, lesbians in South Africa mostly report that they feel fearful, restricted and that the perpetrators regularly go free. South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority stated in 2009 that, “Whilst we are mindful of the fact that hate crimes – especially of a sexual nature– are rife, it is not something that the South African government has prioritized as a specific project.” The Equality Act, passed in 2000, technically outlaws discrimination and violence focused on certain groups, including those of different sexual orientations, in practice it has not been used to prosecute perpetrators of corrective rape at all.

Corrective rape in South Africa also touches on race inequalities and on an underlying disdain for women’s rights. Rape (not necessarily “corrective”) occurs all over South Africa without much punishment and there are still popular ideas that a woman “deserves” rape. Black women also have more problems with rape than white women do, tying in issues of racism, which the World Cup chose to take a stand on by holding banners that said “No to Racism.” However, this racism manifests itself in relation particularly to sexual orientation. Black lesbian women report feeling fear of these corrective rapes at twice the rate of white lesbian women.

It can come as a surprise to people that South Africa has such a high rate of corrective rape considering its liberal constitution and the fact that same-sex marriage is legalized. However, corrective rape is not just a quick “epidemic” or a deviation from the norm but rather a long lasting issue that has seen many women killed or murdered in the last decades. It is the cause of not only death and destruction of women’s bodies but it also restricts their other freedoms. Women are less free to move around, less free to show affection towards partners in public and less free to do things that may make them be perceived as lesbian. These oppressions are lasting because they are not punished. Of 25 men tried for rape, 24 walk free. Until that number  better represents the number of rapists who are guilty, the culture of corrective rape will thrive in South Africa.

Kelly, Annie. “Raped and Killed for Being a Lesbian: South Africa Ignores ‘corrective’ Attacks | World News | Guardian.co.uk.” Raped and Killed for Being Lesbian. 12 Mar. 2009. Web. 02 Jan. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/12/eudy-simelane-corrective-rape-south-africa>.

Martin, Andrew, Annie Kelly, Laura Turquet, and Stephanie Ross. “Hate Crimes in South Africa.”Failures in the Criminal Justice System (2009). Print.