By Annie Dorasamy

There is nothing manly about 36-year-old Durban mother Denise Abbah. She is quite pleasant and no one in their right mind would suggest she looks like a man.

Yet she was thrown into a men's prison cell for seven months, which resulted in her being raped and sodomised, she claims.

Now, six years after her release, Abbah wants revenge.

"I have been in hiding. My life has been turned upside down. I cannot go anywhere without people picking on me, calling me a man," says the Durban mother of five.

Abbah's case is set down for trial on May 12.

In papers filed in the Durban Magistrate's Court, she is suing for R100 000 in damages, although she is seeking further advice on how to increase her claim.

Abbah's alleged torture began in September 2002 when she was sent to jail to await trial for armed robbery, attempted murder and hijacking - she was later acquitted on these charges.

On the day of her arrest, Abbah says, prison authorities registered her as Denis instead of Denise and locked her in a cell with transvestites and male prisoners, where she claims she was raped and sodomised.

Even though she protested against the cell arrangement, she said her pleas fell on deaf ears.

"They just refused to believe that I was a woman. They thought I was a man who had undergone a sex change. I told them about my children at home, but it didn't help.

"When I told the female wardens that I was menstruating, they refused to believe me, saying the bleeding was a result of the sex change operation that I had," said Abbah.

Abbah was eventually moved from the male to the female prison following an expose by the Tribune Herald highlighting her unusual case in 2003.

Abbah says the horrific memories of what happened in the male prison still haunt her.

"I will never be able to forget the trauma, torture and ridicule. I was made a laughing stock and everywhere I went people questioned whether I was a man or a woman," she said.

Abbah said it was time to get justice for what she had been through.

"My life was turned upside down when this happened. Everybody started reacting negatively towards me. My family disowned me because of what happened in prison.

"My father doesn't want to have anything to do with me and my mother died due to the harassment and stress this issue has brought on our family.

"I even tried to take my own life while I was in prison, but then I had to think about my children.

"Apart from them and my husband, I have nothing else to live for," says Abbah.

Sbongile Nhlapho, who chairs Cosatu's gender committee, and Cynthia Joyce, the body's treasurer, visited Abbah on Friday and vowed to take up her plight.

"It is shocking and disappointing, especially for the legal process. It would appear that the justice system in South Africa hasn't improved yet," said Nhlapho.

Abbah is expected to undergo gender testing ahead of her legal battle against the Department of Correctional Services.