By Victoria A. Brownworth
Originally published on Advocate.com July 10 2013 5:15 AM ET
Most lesbians have heard it at least once in their lives: all they need is a good screw by the right guy to turn them straight, to "cure" them of being lesbian.
That conventional wisdom, oft-repeated by heterosexual men, has been taken to its most literal extreme in South Africa, where the brutal trend of "corrective rape" claimed another victim on June 30 when Duduzile Zozo, 26, was found murdered.
Duduzile, an out lesbian, was partially naked and a toilet brush had been shoved into her vagina, rupturing it. She was found by her mother, Thuziwe Zozo, about 40 feet from the Zozo home, in a neighbor’s yard.
The neighbor was questioned and released by police, but Mrs. Zozo said she did not understand why he had told people he didn’t know who the victim was, when they were well-acquainted and lived next door to each other. No one else has been questioned in Zozo’s murder, which has garnered national attention and which has — unlike previous corrective rapes — been labeled a hate crime.
Corrective rape of lesbians has become increasingly common. It is practiced in several nations, including Thailand, Ecuador, Jamaica, and Zimbabwe, but nowhere is it as prevelant as in South Africa, where the term originated.
According to the World Health Organization, South Africa leads the world in rapes. It is also the capital of "HIV cure" rapes — essentially, raping toddlers and babies as an alleged cure for HIV, which is pandemic in South Africa. South African officials assert that there are at least 10 "corrective" rapes each week in the Cape Town area alone.
Corrective rape is supposed to cure or "correct" the sexual orientation of lesbians — to turn them heterosexual and make them stop "acting" lesbian and start acting "straight" — behaving more like the gendered stereotype for women. Like honor killings, corrective rape is frequently perpetrated or supervised by members of the lesbian’s family.
Corrective rape is extremely violent, often including stabbing, mutilation, beating, and stoning. It is usually perpetrated by more than one man. It is a leading cause of HIV infection among lesbians. Corrective rape is so brutal and causes such physical and emotional trauma, it leaves the victim scarred for life — or dead.
Mrs. Zozo told the Johannesburg Independent that she had feared for her daughter’s safety because of the frequency of corrective rapes in their Thokoza neighborhood in Ekuhuleni township, about 35 miles outside of Johannesburg, but that "everyone loved her," so she thought Dudu, as her friends called her, would be safe.
But she wasn’t. And as in many of the corrective rape cases that end in murder, there are no leads in finding her killer.
The country’s most infamous case of corrective rape and murder was that of Eudy Simelane, a lesbian rights advocate and former captain of the national women’s soccer team who was training to be the first female World Cup referee for 2010 when she was murdered.
On April 28, 2008, Simelane was left face-down and naked in a drainage ditch in a stream in a park near Johannesburg. Simelane had been beaten savagely. She had been stabbed 25 times, including on the upper inside of her thighs and the soles of her feet. She had also been raped.
Simelane’s killers were brought to trial, but only two of the five men initially charged were convicted. No mention of a hate-crime was made at the trial. Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng did not want to use the word lesbian at all, asking the prosecutor, "Is there another word that you can use instead of that one?"
Simelane’s was the first corrective rape to result in a conviction, but at their sentencing, her killers just laughed.
Since Simelane’s brutal corrective rape murder, the number of these crimes has escalated. In 2011, Zukiswa Gaca told CNN’s "World’s Untold Stories" that she was correctively raped by an acquaintance who told her that he hated lesbians and how they pretended to be men.
Gaca told her rapist, "I’m not a man. I never said I’m a man. I’m just a lesbian." But his response was "I will show you that I am a man and I have more power than you."
Like many victims of corrective rape, Gaca attempted suicide afterward, laying down on nearby railroad tracks. She was saved from death by a good Samaritan who pulled her from an oncoming train.
But when Gaca reported her rape to police, even leading them to her attacker, they merely questioned her attacker and let him go.
It was the second time Gaca had been raped for being a lesbian. The first time, the slender young woman, now 22, was only 15. She had moved to her new township because she thought she’d be safer. She said she would like to kill her rapist, but then she would be in jail while he was still free.
At left: Eudy Simelane and Noxolo Nogwaza
The horrors of corrective rape run counter to civil liberties LGBT people appear to have in South Africa. Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Status Report on Women both note corrective rape as a serious human rights violation. In its 2011 report, HRW also stated that attitudes toward LGBT people in South Africa had actually gotten significantly worse, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal and LGBT rights are included in the Constitution, which was ratified in 1996. Legally, LGBT South Africans have more protected rights than in any other African nation.
Corrective rape, however, suggests something quite different is going on — particularly, say LGBT activists, outside the big cities. Corrective rape is endemic to the all-black townships and the victims are also black.
Zoliswa Nkonyana was only 19 years old and 100 yards from her home when she was chased and attacked by 20 men on February 4, 2006. She was kicked, beaten, stoned, and stabbed to death, her mutilated body left in a drainage ditch. She was also raped.
The trial of her killers was postponed 52 times; four of the initial 20 men were finally sentenced in February 2012 — six years after her murder. They were not charged with corrective rape or a hate crime.
In addition to the June 30 murder of Zozo, there have been a series of horrifying assaults on lesbians in Ekurhuleni.
In April, Patricia Mashigo, 36, another out lesbian who was also the mother of two daughters, was stoned to death. Her body was found out in the open, surrounded by stones and rocks. She had also been raped.
Mashigo’s murder — in which there are no suspects — happened just days after a memorial for another lesbian, Noxolo Nogwaza, 24, murdered in the same area two years earlier. Nogwaza, a noted LGBT activist and director of the Ekurhuleni Pride Committee, was gang-raped and murdered on April 24, 2011. Her body was found in a ditch. She’d been stoned to death and choked with weeds and brush.
Nogwaza’s murder brought world attention to corrective rape. About 2,000 people attended her funeral which became a protest against corrective rape.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called her killing a hate crime, and 170,000 people signed a petition to get the South African government to address the issue, but South African officials refused, stating "murder is murder," and claiming sexual orientation was not an issue. In November 2012, Amnesty International called for a new investigation into Nogwaza’s murder, but that has not happened.
Nor has the government cited corrective rape as a crime or a hate crime. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, according to WHO. Strictly defined gender roles make lesbians conspicuous. Lesbians who have reported corrective rapes have also reported their rapists saying that the women would be taught a lesson on how to be a real woman. Activists report that poor black women living in the townships are more likely to become victims of corrective violence. Lesbians are most likely to be isolated with little support from their families or their communities, making them even more vulnerable to being attacked.
Human rights organizations have complained the corrective rape is not recognized by South African laws as a hate crime, because the South African Constitution states clearly that no one can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
If South Africa protects LGBT rights, why doesn’t the government have a campaign to prevent corrective rape?
In the Nkoyana murder, suspects were released by a prison worker and the court was found to have been complicit in the 52 postponements. As a consequence of things like that trial, lesbians have little faith in police or their investigations. Crimes based on sexual orientation are not recognized in South Africa; corrective rape reports are not separated from general rape reports.
Siphokazi Mthathi, the South African director of Human Rights Watch, blames deeply embedded patriarchal views and sexism in South African society for the refusal to address the corrective rape crisis.
Mthathi told CNN in an interview after Mashigo’s murder, "We’ve failed to make it understood that there is a price for rape. There is still a strong sense among men that they have power over women, women’s bodies, and there’s also a strong sense that there’s not going to be consequences because most often there are no consequences."
The Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, has strongly condemned the brutal rape/murder of Zozo as well as corrective rape and all forms of hate crimes, saying that government will not condone and tolerate it.
In a press release Xingwana said, "Those that are practicing such acts must know that they are committing crimes against humanity and once they are caught, they will be dealt with the harshness they deserve."
But the rape and murders of Nogwaza, Mashigo and Zozo remain unsolved. And corrective rape goes on in South Africa.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. The first out lesbian to have a column in a daily newspaper, she has won the Society of Professional Journalism Award, the NLGJA Award, Lambda Literary Award among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and the Nation, as well as other national publications. She is a frequent contributor to the Advocate and SheWired. Follow her at @VABVOX.