Lesbians live under shadow of rape
Cape Town - Likamva Cekiso was cleaning her older cousin's room when he walked in, shut the door and locked it, trapping her in darkness and fear.
He turned up the music and attacked her in a horrific demonstration of his masculinity that was aimed at "correcting" her sexuality.
"I was living as a lesbian, that's why he raped me," said the 29-year-old.
"He told me that a woman does this with a man, not with a lady."
The woman had a daughter now aged 11 after she was assaulted a second time by the same cousin.
Cekiso's world as a lesbian living in a township is far removed from the country's same-sex wedding celebrations, gay pride marches and liberal laws championing sexual diversity.
Lesbians, already targets amid rampant violence against women, face staggering threats in the densely packed, impoverished streets -- from ridicule to "corrective" rapes aimed at turning them to heterosexuality.
"I was attacked, I think, about four times," said another woman, Lindeka Stulo, 25, who spent a month in hospital with a broken leg after the first brutal beating.
"At the time they were hitting me, they said I must change - I'm a girl, I cannot date another woman, so he's going to show me that I'm a woman. He's going to hit me and rape me," she recounted to AFP.
Stulo's fight-back attitude has seen her escape rape, but she is aware of the threat of sexual attack and worse.
The discovery last year of a friend's decomposing body stuffed into a rubbish bin was disturbingly close.
"My biggest fear is, I think, everybody saying the same thing, every year to me: You're going to be raped, you're going to be raped, you're going to be raped," she said, explaining that lesbians are seen as virgins and therefore "good meat".
On paper, South Africa's approach to gay rights is admirable.
There are constitutional guarantees of equality, and in 2006 it became the world's fifth, and Africa's only, nation to legalise same-sex marriage.
Yet the townships remain largely conservative with deep-set notions of masculinity, tradition and religion and little understanding of what it means to be gay.
Lesbians not only face being thrown out by their own families, but even the police, meant to protect them, are said to laugh or to call their fellow officers to listen in when the women report hate crimes.'All I want is to be treated normally'
The government has set up a task team, is targeting hard-hit areas, and has started sensitising staff to stamp out secondary victimisation, said justice ministry spokesperson Tlali Tlali, who slammed the crimes as "barbaric".
"We view the matter in a serious light. There must be no space allowed for those behind hate crimes to operate. Conduct of this nature flies in the face of our constitution and its values," he said.
"We are not oblivious to the challenges that lie ahead. We are aware that some of these challenges are found in our agencies responsible for law enforcement."
The team is set to recommend how to go about changing mindsets - such as that being gay is un-African or that lesbians steal women from straight men.
"I would say that black women living in townships are the ones that are more affected because of our culture," said Bulelwa Panda of iThemba Lam, a township gay rights Christian centre and safe house.
"The biggest threat is to be raped, and by living in a community that doesn't understand who you are, that's another challenge because the people around you need to be educated."
Some say things are slowly opening up, yet the differences with nearby gay-friendly Cape Town are stark.
"They are free. Nobody is telling them what to do. You can grab your girlfriend's hand and kiss in public. So here in the township, you can't do that - kiss in public. If you do that, you are at risk," said Stulo.
The women adopt self-governed rules: they avoid walking the streets late at night, shun alcohol which increases their vulnerability, and dress and act "like a lady" when visiting other areas.
Or they even have a relationship with a man to please family members.
"I check where I go. I'm very vigilant," said Ndumie Funda, founder of victims support group Luleki Sizwe, who said township lesbians are being hunted.
"All I want is to be treated normally, all I want is my relationship to be treated like a normal relationship. I don't think that is too much to ask."
Appalling rape statistics
The stories are chilling. Cekiso tells of a lesbian who was raped by her own father because she could not "have a man who has got breasts" in the house.
Human Rights Watch warns that South Africa's laws are meaningless in the face of the threat of violence that "beggars belief" facing lesbians, bisexual women and transgender men.
The scale of the homophobic assaults is unknown, blurring into appalling rape statistics.
Police figures for 2010-2011, which include both men and women, reported 56 272 rapes - one every nine minutes.
Last week, four men were sentenced to 18 years in jail for killing a Cape Town lesbian in what activists hailed as a precedent for harsher sentences for homophobic assaults, after the case faced dozens of postponements.
"I don't think that we will ever know the extent of this," said Sharon Ludwig of the Triangle Project gay rights organisation.
"What we do know is that it's much bigger than what any of us could imagine."
- Cekiso's name has been changed to protect her children's identity.