South Africa has given the world some powerful ideas—foremost among them the concept of the rainbow nation, where diversity is a source of strength and everyone is entitled to equal rights and respect. So it is especially saddening that the country reborn under Nelson Mandela’s watchful eye should now be the setting for a sinister phenomenon that undermines everything the rainbow nation stands for: so-called ‘corrective’ or ‘punitive’ rape.
All rape is repugnant and constitutes a serious crime that can never be condoned or excused. In the case of ‘corrective’ or ‘punitive’ rape, women, and occasionally men, are singled out and brutally raped because they happen to be, or are perceived to be, lesbian or gay. Part of a wider pattern of sexual violence, attacks of this kind commonly combine a fundamental lack of respect for women, often amounting to misogyny, with deeply-entrenched homophobia.
While ‘corrective’ or ‘punitive’ rape has become associated primarily with South Africa, where the majority of documented cases have taken place, the problem is not restricted to any one country. Cases of ‘corrective’ rape have recently been reported in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Jamaica. More generally, violent hate crimes against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons are prevalent in all parts of the world—with some particularly horrifying incidents reported recently in the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Honduras.
A 2009 report by the charity Action Aid includes testimony from 15 female survivors of ‘corrective’ or ‘punitive’ rape in South Africa. In each case, the victims interviewed believed that they had been targeted specifically because of their sexuality. Their attackers told their victims that they were simply teaching them ‘a lesson’, doing them ‘a favour’ and either ‘punishing’ or ‘treating’ them for their homosexuality.
In the latest reported attack, on May 4, a 13 year-old girl was raped in Atteridgeville, near Pretoria. During the assault, her attacker reportedly boasted that he would ‘cure’ her of lesbianism. In late April, the disfigured body of lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza was found in an alley in KwaThema, near Johannesburg. She had been raped and killed, apparently after an argument with men who had tried to proposition her girlfriend.
Nogwaza’s murder took place in the same township in which Eudy Simelane was gang raped and stabbed to death in 2008. Simelane was a lesbian and a star player for the national women’s football team, Banyana Banyana. Charges of rape and murder were eventually laid against four men, two of whom were convicted. Sadly, such convictions are the exception: very few other cases of so-called ‘corrective’ rape have even made it to court.
Reliable statistics on ‘corrective’ or ‘punitive’ rape are hard to come by. In the absence of a more systematic approach to monitoring, recording and investigating such crimes, it is impossible to know the true extent of the problem, let alone hold perpetrators to account. Many cases go unreported and those that are may not be properly identified as homophobic hate crimes.
The Government in South Africa has recently acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. Following the most recent attack in Atteridgeville, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development promised a swift and thorough investigation and correctly referred to gay and lesbian rights as human and constitutional rights. The same department also recently established a task team on hate crimes against lesbians, gays and bisexuals and transgender and intersex persons. These are all steps in the right direction.
Recognizing that lesbians, gays and bisexuals, transgender and intersex persons are vulnerable to violence and discrimination is an important step towards realizing the basic rights of all people. I understand that, in some countries, homosexuality is something that runs against the grain of majority sexual mores. As High Commissioner, I must stay true to universal standards of human rights and human dignity, which are overriding. And let there be no confusion: in speaking up for the rights of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, we are not calling for the recognition of new rights or trying to extend human rights into new territory. We are simply making the point that existing international law protects everyone from violence and discrimination, including on grounds of their sexuality or gender identity. States are responsible for ensuring that everyone can enjoy the same rights—no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like, or whom they love.
South Africans should need no convincing of this. It was, after all, the idea on which the country was renewed and which is today embedded in the constitution. South Africa’s challenge is to be true to its ideals and to make real the promise of the post-apartheid era: a rainbow nation where everyone is free and equal and can live comfortably with those who are different. It is a challenge the rest of the world would do well to take up.
Navi Pillay is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.