Will Friday’s historic United Nations resolution that seeks to apply human rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity enable a policy response to ‘corrective’ rape?
The United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, presented by South Africa and other global co-sponsors, takes place in the context of an ongoing and frustratingly slow dialogue about the practice of ‘corrective’ rape, the rape of lesbians or women perceived to be lesbian by attackers who claim to be trying to ‘correct’ their victims’ sexuality.
‘Corrective’ rape is under-reported, and statistics are difficult to compile. Convictions for those few accused of the crime are rare, and the penalties lenient. Until recently, the crime was all but invisible to the international community.
Then, in 2008, Eudy Simelane, a South African national team football player, was raped, tortured and murdered. Simelane was a high-profile victim, and her case brought international media attention to the crime.
In the past several years, activists from South Africa and around the world have been petitioning governments for a formal, effective response to ‘corrective’ rape. The movement gained momentum with the production of a piece by ESPN which focused on Simelane’s murder and the link between gender and violence. In late 2010, two internet petitions were started (one on Change.org and one on Avaaz.org).
In March of this year, under unprecedented public pressure, South African government officials agreed to meet with Ndumie Funda, the founder of anti-‘corrective’ rape organization Luleki Sizwe, and other South African activists. Funda characterized the meeting as a success, saying “I was very impressed by the level of cooperation, they have agreed to work with us and other stakeholders and I am looking forward to a very constructive, tangible, progressive working relationship.”
In the months that followed, however, the violence against LGBT people in Africa intensified. Gay rights activist David Kato had been murdered in January, and Uganda’s proposed anti-homosexuality bill was on the table. No substantive action was taken in regards to ‘corrective’ rape, and on April 24, Noxolo Nogwaza was raped and murdered in Kwa-Thema, the same township that Eudy Simelane called home.
In her speech delivered on Thursday, June 16, the day before the UN’s vote, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay addressed the issue of ‘corrective’ rape directly, saying that while “in some countries, homosexuality is something that runs against the grain of majority sexual mores…healthy societies cannot approve of violence inflicted on other human beings for any reason. As High Commissioner, I must stay true to universal standards of human rights and human dignity, which are overriding.”
Though welcome, South Africa’s leadership in sponsoring this resolution is surprising. As Dawn Cavanagh of the Coalition of African Lesbians expressed, “The South African government has now offered progressive leadership, after years of troubling and inconsistent positions on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The country’s president, Jacob Zuma, has himself expressed anti-?homosexuality sentiments. In 2005, he was accused of rape (he never denied sexual contact with his 31 year-old accuser, maintaining that the sex was consensual) and in 2006 he was acquitted.
Perhaps what matter most here is that, as Cavanaugh said, “the government has set a standard for themselves in international spaces.”
It should be noted that although ‘corrective’ rape is strongly associated with South Africa, cases have been reported in other countries including Jamaica, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Additionally, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are subject to violence and discrimination around the world.
The resolution calls on the High Commissioner to “to prepare a study on violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and calls for a panel discussion to be held at the Human Rights Council to discuss the findings of the study in a constructive and transparent manner, and to consider appropriate follow-up.”
In some ways, this feels like the “victory” of the March 14, 2011 meetings with South African officials. “Appropriate follow-up” will take time, and recent history tells us that while the wheels of policy grind, women like Noxolo Nogwaza lose their lives.