Spate Of Sex Crimes Affects South African Lesbians

Some lesbians in South Africa are becoming victims of so-called "corrective rape." Men are raping women with the alleged intent to "cure" them of their sexual orientation. Host Michel Martin speaks to Johannesburg-based journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Advisory: This segment may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, many Americans and the Obama administration mark June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride Month, so throughout the month, we've been highlighting the successes and challenges faced by LGBT people around the world.

Today, we turn to South Africa. The constitution it adopted after the end of apartheid is, on paper at least, one of the most progressive in the world in its treatment of LGBT rights. There is equal protection for gays in the workplace. Not only is gay sex not a crime, unlike more than dozens of other countries in Africa, same-sex marriage was legalized there in 2006.

But, despite this, sexual violence is rampant and lesbians are at even greater risk than the general population. And this is probably where I should say that the rest of our conversation might not be appropriate for all listeners and I'm saying that because we're going to talk about a gruesome crime known as corrective rape. That is an assault in which a man rapes a lesbian in an attempt to, quote, unquote, "cure her sexual orientation."

Johannesburg-based journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, wrote about this recently in The New Yorker magazine and she's with us now to tell us more about it.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's great to be back with you, Michel, although the story is not a great one.

MARTIN: It is a very, very disturbing story. Now, you've written in the past and a lot of other journalists have written in the past about just, first of all, how rampant sexual violence is in South Africa, in general. There are some numbers from 2009 indicating that half of the country's women may be raped at least once in their lifetime.

So the first thing I wanted to ask is why is that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, let me just say, first of all, it's not just women. It's children and it's babies and, sometimes, it's by strangers, but more often than not, it's about either people who live nearby and sometimes by family members. And I don't think that anybody has quite figured out why it is so rampant.

One of the people I interviewed on this story was a prominent businessman who used to work for the South African Council of Churches named Saki Macozoma and he quoted a Khosa writer who said that this is a generation of doubt, where you have one foot in traditional society and another in some form of modernity, and so you've lost the central authority of the clan, which I think may be part of it, but I think, also, there's a lack of real leadership on the issue. And so it's just a situation that remains horrible and, if you look at the statistics, out of control.

MARTIN: How did this phenomenon of, quote, unquote, "corrective rape" come to your attention?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, I know quite a few people who do work in this area, and every now and then, there'd be a story about it and it just seems so bizarre, so I began to ask people about it and look into - I know some of the people who run these LBGT organizations.

And then there was this human rights report, which - you know, you can hear a lot from people because there's all kinds of reasons they - some people say that more women are raped than can read. I don't think that's necessarily codified anywhere, so you get a lot of urban legend, as it were.

But then, last December, Human Rights Watch issued a report called "We'll Show You Your Woman," which is what many of the men who rape butch lesbians say, and her report was quite extensive and quite scientific and so I took that as the point of departure as I began to talk with other people who had been through the experience or else who had been looking at it.

You know, one of the problems in this country - it's so young as a democracy and so many of these organizations don't have proper funding. You don't get a lot of real scientific surveys and work, so you just have to interview as many people as you possibly can, including victims, which is very, very difficult because you're asking people to report and bring back something in their minds that was just totally, totally demeaning and horrible and yet, some of them were willing to talk to me about it.

MARTIN: You reported on just a gruesome crime against a member of the - a former member of the national women's soccer team who was actually - who was raped and killed in April of 2008 and you reported on how, even though, in this case, her attackers were arrested and prosecuted, they really had no remorse.

HUNTER-GAULT: Oh, no. I mean, and as he was - one of the men who was leaving the court - he was sentenced, I believe, to life and he said, as he walked out of the courtroom, I'm not sorry.

When you talk to a lot of men in South Africa, as I did, and I watched some on television and one program that - the independent program here called ETV - I mean, some of the things they said was just unbelievable and it sounds as if men are so challenged by the fact that two women would love one another as opposed to a woman loving a man, they feel emasculated. They say, why would you want a woman over me? And one said, even, I think those things should be killed.

I talked to one person who works with a lot of men who have been convicted of rape and there are so many factors that lead to their insecurity and even emasculation, not least of which is the lack of work, the lack of things to do. And then there is this patriarchal society.

MARTIN: We're talking about so-called corrective rape in South Africa. The distinguished foreign correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently wrote about this in The New Yorker, and this is a phenomenon where lesbian women, particularly those who affect a more masculine appearance, are targeted for rape by men who claim that they are going to cure their sexual orientation. And this is probably a good place to mention again that this is a very difficult subject and may not be appropriate for all listeners.

Charlayne, one of the points that you make in your piece, though, is something that, as mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, is that there's such a contrast to how the South African constitution addresses same-sex relationships. And I'm just wondering how you - which also recognizes, you know, plural marriage. Right?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, yes. That's traditional. The president himself, you know, has several wives and...

MARTIN: The president has - presently has four wives and it's also - maybe - is it worth mentioning that the president himself, before he became president, was actually prosecuted for rape and was...

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, he was...

MARTIN: ...acquitted.

HUNTER-GAULT: He was, but he was acquitted. I don't think that's the critical ingredient in all of this. I think that that's part of the reason. You know, it helps to explain the psyche of so many men in this country who feel that they have to satisfy a woman or who, in their own minds, decide that, you know, whether she wants to be satisfied or not, they're going to satisfy themselves - I'm not sure that's a phenomenon that's unique to South Africa. It's just that...

MARTIN: But I guess...

HUNTER-GAULT: ...it's so widespread here.

MARTIN: I think the thing that I think is puzzling to people, though, is how is it possible that there's such a wide gulf between the stated kind of legal framework and protections for people in same-gender relationships and yet, among the population, such disdain for - that kind of - and such a casual attitude toward violence. I guess that's the gulf that I'm wondering about. I wonder if your reporting sheds any light on that.

HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah. Well, I think that part of what I tried to talk about is a lot of those murders and awful acts against women have been created after hours of drinking in those bars and then, you know, the men lose a lot of their inhibitions and they look over and they see two women together and, again, you know, this is the kind of thing that really aggravates their manhood, I think.

And so I think that part of it is this long legacy of apartheid, which, if you look at it, it's only been out legally since 1994. This country isn't even a 20-year-old democracy yet, so that's a large part of it.

And I think the other part of it is that you don't get a lot of leadership and public discussion about it. I mean, right now, everybody's discussing a portrait that was done of the president exposing his genitalia and this has gripped the nation unlike anything I've seen in recent months and maybe even in the past year. Everybody's on - it's a huge debate. I mean, there are some people who think this portrait of the president with his genitalia exposed is demeaning to the president. Others think it's freedom of expression.

But the debate that's going on is amazing, and I just keep thinking, especially after having just finished this piece, why couldn't we be having a debate about how to treat people with different sexual orientation? Why can't we have a debate about what's happening to women and children and babies in this country that is at the level of intensity that people have been expressing their attitudes about this painting? It just is - there's not a lot of leadership on the issue, except among the human rights and LBGT organizations, and they just simply don't have the funds to be very public about it.

And the other thing that's critical is that, when things happen to women like the one I described in this piece and several others, there's no counseling. And so they have to live with these horrible affronts to their bodies with very little support, often very little support from families, who think they brought it on themselves and stuff like that.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to ask to just tell one story of the stories that you uncovered in the course of your reporting and, as you just told us, it took months to get people to tell their story, to find people who were willing to tell their stories and use their names. Again, very disturbing, but I wanted to just ask if you could just tell the story of Longila Cleopatra(ph)...

HUNTER-GAULT: Longila Cleopatra Dadla(ph).

MARTIN: ...Dadla.

HUNTER-GAULT: You know, she's such a talented young woman and you can see in the piece, when she talks about the man who raped her, talking about how she could hear him walking back away from the scene like a snake is walking through the grass. I mean, she's very poetic. She's getting no support and, moreover, she's found out - she found out about two years after she was raped that she's HIV positive. The man who raped her was himself HIV positive.

And now, she's having secondary physical reactions to it. The clinics often don't have the medication that she needs and now she's got shingles and she can't always pay for the medication or, if she goes to the clinic where they have free medications, normally, they're out of the medications.

And so there's no real good outcome to this and nobody can quite figure out why anybody would do something that heinous to someone who's so talented.

MARTIN: One thing that struck me about your description of Longila Cleopatra Dadla is she and a friend were walking home one night and that she describes how an armed man wearing a hooded sweatshirt came up to her and her friend, directed them to a field, raped them - tied them up, both, raped them both and just walked away. Just walked away. That's the image that struck is - just walked away and said, you can go now.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, as awful as it might sound, I mean, I guess there are degrees of heinousness and at least they survived. In so many ways, they still have scars. We don't even know how many there are because the justice system is so ineffective and also prejudiced against these women that sometimes they even don't feel the need - that it's worth going to report on it. So, as many as we've been able to document through Human Rights Watch and others, there must be many, many more.

They just get frustrated and fed up and, when they go to the police, they say, how could you be raped? You're a man. And many women just don't want to go through that. So right now, despite the fact that this country has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, there are threats to the constitution. There are those who want to take away these rights that have been granted to all these people and so it's a real tough issue and I think that people who are concerned about not just gays and lesbians, but about humanity and about democracy, really ought to give some hard thought to how these protections can be maintained because they exist on paper for now.

MARTIN: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a journalist. She's also the author of a number of books. Her article on corrective rape in South Africa was featured in The New Yorker and she was kind enough to join us from the BBC's bureau in Johannesburg.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HUNTER-GAULT: It's always a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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