Raped For the Cure: Systematic Discrimination Towards Lesbians in Patriarchal Africa

This paper reviews the ways in which systematic violence affects lesbians in the African continent as a whole but with a specific look at South Africa. The breaching of Human rights, the act of corrective rape and church influences are analyzed.

You may remember reverting back to 2008 reading the dist­­urbing newspaper headlines that Eudy Simelane, star player on South Africa’s national women’s football team, was brutally raped and murdered. She was young, vibrant and outspoken on LGBT rights involving her country. The incident was a shock to those who thought South Africa had come a long way from its oppressive history towards sexual minorities after the disposal of sodomy laws from the constitution in 1998. Simelane’s murder is only one example of the many forms of systematic and gender based violence that is being directed towards lesbians today. Although there have been discussions at UN summits and laws established to protect the rights of sexual minorities and women, African jurisdictions choose to turn blindly on the fact that women are being harassed, raped, disowned and murdered due to their sexual orientation. There is an urgent need for a tighter grip by the international community upon those African’s who call themselves policy makers.

Although sexual harassment and discrimination are daily offences in the lives of the LGBT community, women are more of a target and with that have more difficulties to face. Historically women have always been characterized as sexually inferior, symbolized as child bearers and possessions to the family patriarchs. If a woman dared to go against the norms of the communal family they would be subject to violence, ostracism, and shame. While doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe, Scott Long from the Human Rights Watch points out in his conversation with a young woman named Gloria, that families see an unmarried daughter as a burden to their financials. An unwed daughter solely means a loss of lobola or dowry. Not only is this daughter seen as an economic burden upon her family but she also jeopardizes the status of her family within the web of her community. Gloria admits that being unwed is simply unheard of. You can imagine then that these societal values cause great pressure upon women who identify themselves as lesbians. Consequently, some lesbians give into the pressure and marry men; Gloria tells her interviewers, “It is easier for a woman to have a husband to point to…But I feel I have made a compromise. It’s our compromises, though, that keep us alive.”

Many other girls have decided on the opposite route by coming out about their sexuality to their families. Primary accounts provided by lesbians to the Human Rights Watch have expressed regret that after coming out into the open about their sexuality they were subjected to corrective rape. Thisterm describes an act of forced rape upon a lesbian in attempt to “cure” her back to her natural femininity and is usually scheduled by the family. This mode of violence is loosely accepted. One young lesbian woman describes her experience as being locked into a room by her parents and being repeatedly raped by a man until she fell pregnant. She ran away to an abortion clinic but then was later caught by the police and brought back home where she was once again locked up and raped until she again fell pregnant.

There are also those along the spectrum who choose to run away and most of the time, are still subject to discrimination and violence. An independent, free roaming woman is an easy target. Rural women, especially those who have not been educated, cannot support themselves economically after leaving their kin and are often forced to return home. Women need to be taught valuable work skills so they can learn to be more independent and less reliable upon the family. This way if she decides to leave her kin she will be able to survive on her own.

Another alarming reality is fear of the police. After escaping abuse, going to the police for help is hardly a viable option for these women. There is a consensus gathered from several accounts provided that in addition to being harassed, the police are unhelpful to those who have been raped and threatened. These narratives suggest that the police seem to be perpetrators of gender based violence instead of fulfilling their duty as protectors. The lack of faith in the protection by police and the criminal justice system has caused the lesbian and gay community to avoid the police and in consequence has left many gender based crimes unreported.

These public attitudes towards non conforming ideas of gender and sexual expressions are in part influenced by conservative religious morals. The Church is a prominent and influential institution in African society that was once grounded by the colonialists. The ancient term sodomy is still considered a crime in matters of the law in both Zimbabwe and Namibia. The Church teaches that homosexuality is of immoral conduct against God and nature. These ideas are mirrored by African state laws and thus entwined into society norms. Quite alarming is a view held by Namibia’s Minister of Home Affairs who stated in 2000 that, “Homosexuality is un-Christian. Sodomy is similar to rape. As far as I am concerned sodomy is a crime. Yes, homosexuality is a crime.” Immediately after reading this unsettling statement I automatically sensed a sum of inconsistencies. If sodomy is similar to rape and hence a crime as Namibia’s Minister of Home Affairs claims, then shouldn’t the act of corrective rape (which oddly enough is supposed to erase homosexual tendencies) also be a crime? Clearly these ideas that govern society are a contradiction and need to be accounted for.

Looking at the South African case, a country that has supposedly conformed to binding judicial principles protecting humanity has blindly allowed prejudices and violence to exist. Doctrines that are meant to protect all peoples; South Africa’s Bill of Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, seem to have been instituted to fulfill some other agenda exclusive of serving as a means of protection. This lack of judicial success only pushes lesbians further away from attaining any measure of protection and justice.

These women should not have to compromise their freedoms and happiness for the fear of being ostracized, raped or killed. If you are a woman reading this, put yourself in these women’s shoes, what would you do? Whichever decision you reach lays a road of hardship infused by systematic discrimination and destructive realities. This should be an urgent wakeup call to the international community that their laws of rights and freedoms are not being adhered.


South Africans demonstrating against violence perpetuated on women. The murder of lesbians has been the subject of discussion and organizing in recent months.,
a photo by //www.flickr.com/photos/53911892@N00/“>Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.

 By Jehan Ashour

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