By Yolanda Mufweba
Lesbians are being raped, assaulted and victimised "every day" in the townships, in an attempt to force a change in their sexual orientation. Since January this year, 33 black lesbians have come forward with their stories of rape, assault, sexual assault and verbal abuse to organisations fighting hate crimes in Johannesburg townships.
Zanele Muholi, a reporter for the lesbian and gay publication Behind the Mask, has documented 12 rapes, four attempted rapes, six verbal abuse cases, three assaults with a deadly weapon, and two abductions.
"Since we started on this project (The Rose has Thorns) we've realised that this kind of thing happens every day, everywhere. As we are speaking, there are two people waiting for me to take their details," she said.
The age group of the victims ranges from 16 to 35 years, and two of the rape survivors are teenagers. Muholi added that 24 of the 33 women who were subjected to hate crimes were "butch" women who had been victimised in townships including Sharpeville, Tembisa, White City, Kagiso, Pimville, Alexandra and Kwa Thema among others.
"Eight of the perpetrators were friends and neighbours, two - family, seven - familiar to the survivors, two - ex-boyfriends, seven - strangers, and five - attacked by gang members," she said.
Kekeletso Khena fled from Soweto after being raped three times before she turned 19.
It's a practice called "corrective rape", where men try to "turn you into a real African woman".
"I was raped because I was a butch child. I was 13 years old the first time it happened. My mother walked into the room soon afterwards and said to me 'this is what happens to girls like you'.
"It didn't occur to me then what she meant, but looking back now, that's not the kind of thing you expect from a mother," she said.
Khena had boyfriends but she never became sexually intimate with them.
"I was raped by my ex-boyfriend because I refused him sex. The last time I was raped, I was 18 years old, it was a family friend who said to me that I had to be taught how to be a black woman. My family reacted differently this time. There was a lot more sensitivity and support because they knew the perpetrator," she said.
Khena left Soweto and hardly goes back to the township.
"I hate going back to Soweto, people stare at you as if you are an abomination. The minute I walk into the township, this alarm bell goes off in my head. I feel even worse when I look at my mother and you can see in her eyes she's thinking 'this is my child'. I left the township because I refuse to feel threatened on a daily basis," she said.
Years later, she and her mother have come to terms with her daughter's behaviour.
"Most black families know, but they don't talk about it," she said.
Denne (as she likes to be called) from Alexandra, is 30 years old and has had to defend herself physically since her days at school.
"I have been in many fights. It's very rough here in Alex. Everyone has a problem - calling me faggot. But you earn respect if you discipline them. If you're a lesbian in Alex, you don't go out after dark, you must be able to fight or else you get raped or beaten up," she said.
She has also left home, but still stays in Alexandra with her daughter.
"I was just tired of fighting with my parents, my family. They don't understand, so I left," she said.
Yusoof Abdullah, veteran co-founder of the Pride March, agreed that at township level many gay women were still facing heavy prejudice from communities.
"We rarely hear of people being beaten up on campus anymore. But in townships, gay women are not accepted. The mentality is still that all they need is a penis to set them straight," he said.
Just last month, a lesbian was stabbed outside her home in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. The stabbing pierced her lung and she had to have five stitches.
Media reports also stated that she had been stabbed 11 times in a previous attack. She has subsequently died and will be buried this weekend.
The Forum for the Empowerment of Women and Behind the Mask have, since 2001, tackled hate crimes happening in townships around Johannesburg through workshops and empowerment programmes.
The Rose has Thorns campaign is trying to raise awareness of hate crimes directed at lesbians.
Khena, who has joined the campaign as manager, said the most common form of hate crimes was "corrective rape".
"It's the most disturbing. It boils down to the fact that you as a woman have a role to be a wife, mother and subordinate to your husband. If you are lesbian you are not fulfiling those roles," she said.
"There are many issues that lesbians have to deal with besides being marginalised as women. There is intolerance at all levels - the media, health officials, education, the police, family. That is why there is such a high rate of suicide and drug abuse," she said.
Pamphlets issued by the organisation advise lesbians on the best ways to prevent themselves from being seriously injured during these attacks.
"We hand these out at workshops and we run self-defence classes every week. We also have training workshops in computer courses for those out of work," she said.
"The organisation has hosted workshops for communities to discuss issues faced by lesbians and how the community can assist in fighting prejudice.
"We need to get rid of the belief that it is unnatural and that it is a white thing, or un-African," she said.
The head of the police Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit, Superintendent Andre Neethling, said the victims needed to trust police with information.
"We get reports on rape cases but the motive behind the attacks is not given. If it's a case of gay-bashing we would be able to successfully link cases and do profiles for arrests. We need to work together to put an end to this," he said.