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Curing ‘corrective’ rape: Conceptualising a dual-pronged approach to sexual violence against Black lesbians in South Africa

Curing ‘corrective’ rape: Conceptualising a dual-pronged approach to sexual violence against Black lesbians in South Africa

Persistent and endemic ‘corrective’ rape of Black lesbians in South Africa invites socio-legal study of its context, critically auditing both the law and society in South Africa to engineer change.

Introduction

In 2008, the lifeless body of Eudy Simelane, a member of South Africa’s national soccer team, an activist, and one of the first ‘out’ lesbian women in the Kwa Thema region, was discovered. She was found in Johannesburg, naked and face down near a drainage ditch having been gang-raped, brutally beaten and stabbed 25 times. This particular brand of targeted violence was not novel, and had been documented for years prior to Simelane’s rape and murder. However, her celebrity, the degree of savagery, and the motivation behind the attack, led to the coinage of the term ‘corrective’ rape. Initially it was defined as rape perpetrated against lesbians by straight heterosexual men with the intent of ‘curing’ their homosexuality which was perceived as ‘unnatural’. Corrective rape is now used to refer broadly to any hate crime that entails the rape of a member of a group that does not conform to gender or sexual orientation norms. The motive of the perpetrator is to ‘correct’ the individual, fundamentally combining gender-based violence and homophobic violence. In the South African context, these biases intersect with systemic racism, producing a disproportionate impact on Black, queer, womxn. Corrective rape is not limited in geographical scope, and accounts from various parts of the globe including the USA, Zimbabwe, Jamaica and India have been recorded.

Corrective rape is not an inexplicable phenomenon and is borne out of the insidious intersection of systems of oppression, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, which produce extremely dangerous realities where violence against vulnerable marginalised groups is socially sanctioned. The law – meant to be a protective shield guaranteeing protection, equal rights, and freedoms – falls short. This failing is evident even today, with the recent attack of a lesbian woman in Cape Town in early March of 2020, ironically right after Capetonians celebrated Cape Town Pride Festival. Given the complex nature of this atrocious human rights violation, two sites of contestation – and consequently protection – emerge: the South African national legal framework, and South African society itself.

The national framework

At the national level, an analysis of South Africa’s national legal framework reveals, prima facie, a good faith attempt to protect Black lesbians through extensive rape law reform, and constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination that the South African State has garnered acclaim for on the continent and globally. To begin with, the South African Constitution sets out an aspirational protective legal framework for LGBTQIA+ persons, most notably as the first constitution in the world to include sexual orientation as a class in its national non-discrimination clause. Apart from the equality clause in which race, gender, and sexual orientation are listed as grounds upon which discrimination is prohibited, section 12 of the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to freedom from all forms of violence from either public or private sources. These rights have been upheld as a positive obligation of the State by the Constitutional Court in subsequent case law. A significant development in rape law is the now broad definition of rape, and its gender-neutral nature. Despite these noteworthy advancements, Black lesbians have not materially benefitted from the fortified protections rendered by the law.

Regardless of the fact that there have been numerous cases of corrective rape and murder of Black lesbians, to date only three have gone to trial successfully. In one of these, the case of Eudy Simelane described above, when her murderers were brought to trial, the judge did not want to use the word ‘lesbian’ at all, and asked the prosecutor if there was an alternative word he could use instead. There was no mention of hate crime, and though the judge convicted two out of the five men responsible for her death, on sentencing, he stated that her sexual orientation had ‘no significance’ in her rape or murder. Simelane’s was the first corrective rape case to result in a conviction, but during sentencing the killers just laughed.

Currently, the South African legal system does not differentiate between acts of violence committed out of prejudice, and other violent acts. Therefore, in addition to not criminalising hate crimes as a substantive criminal offence, South African criminal law also does not expressly require enhanced penalties where a crime is motivated by hate. The corrective rape of lesbians is thus investigated and prosecuted as ordinary rape, regardless of any bias by the accused. Introducing hate crime legislation would therefore create an avenue via which to positively decry and punish the homophobic and sexist biases that spur on the perpetrators of corrective rape. Such legislation has the potential to not just provide legal remedy, but also spark social transformation.

South African society

Taking a look at South African society, an interrogation into the relevant predominant attitudes reveals the homophobia, heteronormativity, heterosexism, and misogyny that lurk beneath the promise of a free and equal South Africa. The complex interplay between African culture, and the legacies of apartheid, slavery, and colonisation, birthed hierarchical social stratifications, violent masculinities, pernicious heteronormative underpinnings of social relations, vitriolic patriarchal imperatives, repressive silence, elusive justice and stifling poverty, amidst other outcomes, that have determined, and continue to determine, the fate of Black lesbians in South Africa. Thus, the normalisation of gendered and racialised violence is interwoven into the very fabric of South African society. Social interventions are therefore inherently necessary to change patriarchal, heterosexist and homophobic socio-cultural norms that facilitate and endorse at worst, and tolerate at best, the corrective rape of Black lesbians in South Africa. Further, changing attitudes would not only reduce the crime rate, but also trigger greater prosecution within law enforcement, and reduce secondary victimisation of survivors.

In looking to the field of public health, where social interventions have been mapped, implemented, and studied to a greater extent, two interventions appear suitable to disrupt community rhetoric: the use of education-entertainment which has already successfully been used to tackle intimate partner violence in South Africa and casteism in India; and what global health experts call ‘organized diffusion’. The former utilises television and radio programmes to ‘harness popular culture and communication to bring about social change’. The latter refers to community discussions where ‘members of the same group identify local harmful practices and the norms that sustain them, eventually renegotiating both to achieve greater health, well-being, and empowerment for themselves and others in their group’. While seemingly compelling strategies to effectively transform social norms and attitudes around the corrective rape of Black lesbians in South Africa, the study of societies and community behaviour is a complex field. An appreciation of the intricacies involved in societal transformation warrants further research before the implementation of serious interventions to deal with corrective rape (and other social issues).

Conclusion

Corrective rape is a scourge that defines the lives of thousands of queer womxn, and is an ever-present threat in the daily realities of Black lesbians in South Africa. In the past two decades since this egregious act gained its nomenclature, the needle appears to have barely shifted favourably. This can be attributed to the complex nature of this phenomenon, which sits at the nexus of various systems of oppression and, in South Africa especially, exists in a sociopolitical context whose history is charged with violence, pain, and segregation. A socio-legal study of the same reveals an indisputable truth: corrective rape is best tackled using a multi-faceted solution that takes into account the manifold relevant variables at play. In particular, recognising that transforming society in tandem with the law is a pre-requisite to significantly changing outcomes for Black lesbians in South Africa.

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