South Africa has given the world some powerful ideas – foremost among them the concept of the rainbow nation, where diversity is a source of strength and everyone is entitled to equal rights and respect.
It is especially saddening that the country reborn under Nelson Mandela’s watchful eye should now be the setting for a far more sinister phenomenon that undermines everything the rainbow nation stands for: so-called corrective rape.
The disturbing term “corrective rape” describes the rape of lesbians or women perceived to be lesbian by men who claim to be trying to “correct” their victims’ sexuality. In the worst cases, such attacks have been fatal.
Rape and comparable sexual violence against anyone is a serious crime that must never be condoned nor tolerated.
This kind of rape is part of a wider pattern of sexual violence that tragically affects women across South Africa and elsewhere.
It combines discrimination and a fundamental lack of respect for women with deeply entrenched homophobia, in spite of some of the most progressive laws and constitutional protections in the world.
In the latest reported attack, on May 4, a 13-year-old girl was raped in Atteridgeville near Pretoria. During the assault, her attacker reportedly boasted that he would “cure” her of lesbianism.
In late April, the disfigured body of lesbian activist Noxolo Nogwaza was found in an alley in KwaThema near Joburg. She had been raped and killed, apparently after an argument with some men who had tried to proposition her girlfriend.
Nogwaza’s murder took place in the same township in which Eudy Simelane was gang-raped and stabbed to death in 2008. Simelane was a lesbian and a star player for the national women’s football team, Banyana Banyana. Charges of rape and murder were eventually laid against four men, two of whom were convicted.
Sadly, such convictions are the exception: very few other cases of so-called corrective rape have even made it to court.
Reliable statistics on “corrective” rape are hard to come by.
In the absence of a more systematic approach to monitoring, recording and investigating such crimes, it is impossible to know the true extent of the problem, let alone hold perpetrators to account.
Many cases go unreported and those that are may not be properly identified as homophobic-hate crimes.
The government recently acknowledged the seriousness of the situation.
Following the most recent attack in Atteridgeville, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development promised a swift and thorough investigation and correctly referred to gay and lesbian rights as human and constitutional rights.
The same department also recently established a task team on hate crimes against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people.
The task team, which meets for the first time later this month, will gather information, propose possible responses and facilitate public awareness activities and training of police and court officials.
These are all steps in the right direction. The contribution of community-based organisations, including groups representing victims, will be critical in identifying how the authorities can better discharge their responsibility to protect people from this kind of targeted, hate-driven violence.
While ‘‘corrective’’ rape has become associated with South Africa, where most documented cases have taken place, the problem is not restricted to any one country.
Cases of corrective rape have recently been reported in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Jamaica, and, more generally, violence against individuals perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a reality in all parts of the world, with some particularly horrific incidents reported recently in the US, the UK, Honduras and Brazil.
I understand that, in some countries, homosexuality is something that runs against the grain of majority sexual mores.
But 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.
Let there be no confusion: in speaking up for the rights of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex, we are not calling for the recognition of new rights or trying to extend human rights into new territory.
We are simply reinforcing what the UN human rights treaty bodies and human rights rapporteurs have confirmed repeatedly: existing international law protects everyone from violence and discrimination, including on grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.
States are responsible for ensuring that everyone can enjoy the same rights – no matter who they are, where they come from, what they look like, or whom they love.
South Africans should need no convincing of this.
It was, after all, the idea on which this country was renewed and which is today embedded in the constitution.
South Africa’s challenge is to be true to its ideals and to make real the promise of the post-apartheid era: a rainbow nation where we are all free and equal and can live comfortably with those who are different.
It is a challenge the rest of the world would do well to take up.
l Navi Pillay is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.