Close to home:Lesbians targeted in rapes and slayings

2011-05-28 00:00

VIOLENCE against women is a rapidly­ increasing trend, says Fikile Vilakazi, programmes director of the Coalition of African Lesbians.

“Reports of the rape and murder of lesbians are being received almost on a daily basis. This month alone, there have been five reported cases of murder,” she added.

In a recent case, the trend seems to have hit KwaMashu, but police could not confirm that it was related to sexual orientation.

Nqobile Khumalo’s (23) body was found in a shallow grave in bushes not far from her parent’s home in KwaMashu three weeks ago. A young man, Musa Mazibuko (25), claiming to be her boyfriend, allegedly confessed to the murder. According to police reports he confessed to his friends who told his parents. His parents then called the police and he was arrested after showing them where he had hidden the body. He allegedly claimed that he killed her after having a misunderstanding with her.

However, gay rights organisation, Lexit in Durban, allege that she was “killed because she was a lesbian”.

A spokesperson from Lexit, who was also a friend of Khumalo, said that Khumalo was a member of the organisation and was in a relationship with a woman. She claims that Khumalo had gone missing on May 3 and that she was raped before she was killed.

“She was a quiet and friendly girl. She was not outgoing. I have never heard of [the suspect] before and I think that he was her ex-boyfriend whom she dated­ two years ago, if not more. I think that he was angered because she had chosen another woman over him,” the spokesperson said.

She added that Khumalo was openly lesbian and that her family and friends had known about her sexual orientation.

Both the family and the girlfriend did not wish to speak to The Witness.

A protest, organised by Lexit, was held recently outside the Durban City Hall in honour of Khumalo.

“My worry is that this is beginning to happen all over. We have been talking about this for too long, but nobody is taking a stand to sort out the issue. The government needs to act immediately,” said Zanele Muholi, who is a visual activist.

“It is the intensity of hate and irrational fear of lesbians. Most of the women who have been targeted are transgender lesbians. They are women who are defying the traditional models of women and challenging masculinity,” Vilakazi said.

These hate crimes occur all over the country. In KwaThema, they found Noxolo Nogwaza’s body in a drainage ditch choked with trash and high reeds. The lesbian activist had been repeatedly stabbed with broken glass, and beaten so severely with chunks of concrete that her teeth had been knocked out.

The neighbourhood where the 24-year-old mother of two was slain once was known as a haven for black gays and lesbians, but activists say her death here late last month highlights an alarming rise in homophobic violence in some of the most impoverished areas.

“If the police and other state officials do not act swiftly, it will only be a matter of time before they have to account for their failure to the family and friends of the next lesbian who is beaten and killed in Kwa-Thema,” Human Rights Watch researcher Dipika Nath said in a statement.

No arrests have been made with regards to Nogwaza’s death, one of dozens that happen each day in a country with high rates of violent crime. Authorities are also investigating whether she had been raped.

In the days leading up to her funeral, friends, family and colleagues held several marches in her honour, travelling from the ditch where her body was found through the streets of the Kwa-Thema neighbourhood in this community just east of Johannesburg.

Some union leaders and politicians have also offered support, with one union noting Nogwaza’s children in particular.

“We hope that they will one day manage to see beyond the horror of what has happened, and recognise and be proud of the wonderfully warm and courageous person their mother was,” said the union.

The justice ministry announced two weeks ago that it wants to open special shelters for people who fear for their lives because of their sexual orientation. But the ANC Women’s League says the government must go further, and wants lawmakers to classify these attacks as hate crimes.

“We’ve been so confident here in South Africa, thinking the law will protect us. We’re facing the same struggles all over this continent and all over this world,” said Bontle Khalo, a friend of Nogwaza.

Lesbians say they are particularly vulnerable in a society where conservative attitudes have strong influence on how women are seen and treated.

The assaults on lesbians have been called “corrective rapes,” and are meant to humiliate and punish women who don’t fit the norm. Some attackers have reportedly said they believed they could “cure” women of being lesbians by raping them, said Vasu Reddy, a researcher at the Human Science Research Council.

Victims are even believed to include a 13-year-old girl who was assaulted in Pretoria last week.

Some 30 attacks have been documented since 2003, and they have steadily increased over the years, Reddy said. But the real number is likely higher because victims can be reluctant to come forward for fear of being stigmatised or blamed, and because the motives of murders aren’t always immediately known or recorded.

Kwa-Thema, where Nogwaza lived and died, had long been known as being gay-friendly, drawing people from across the country.

In 2008, Eudy Simelane — an openly lesbian star for Banyana Banyana and a Kwa-Thema resident — was gang-raped, beaten and stabbed. Another lesbian, Girlie Nkosi, was stabbed a dozen times in a Kwa-Thema club in 2009.

Those deaths led to the founding of Ekurhuleni Pride Organising Committee known as EPOC. One of its first events was a gay pride march through Kwa-Thema in 2009 that was endorsed by religious and traditional leaders, Khalo said.

About 500 people marched in 2009, and even more turned out last year. Khalo, EPOC’s spokeswoman, thought the marches helped, until Nogwaza’s death in late April.


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