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African gay-rights activists stand strong as brutality rises

Members of the Ugandan gay community mourn at the funeral of murdured activist David Kato near Mataba, on January 28, 2011.

Marc Hofer/AFP/Getty Images/Marc HoferAFP/Getty Images

When her fiancée was brutally raped by men who sought to "correct" her sexual orientation, Ndumie Funda vowed to fight for justice.

Ms. Funda was devastated by the death of her fiancée and another close friend, who died of illnesses caused by the "corrective rape" that they had suffered. But when she formed a rights organization and campaigned for the prosecution of a man charged with the rape of another lesbian, she was soon in hiding, afraid to leave her home.

"He is still running around the streets, sending people to follow me," she says. "The perpetrators follow you and threaten you. I have to keep myself safe."

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South Africa has the most liberal laws on homosexuality in Africa, including the first African law to permit gay marriage and a much-lauded constitution that bans discrimination against gays. Yet the phenomenon of "corrective rape" is a sign of the anti-gay hatred and violence that have become widespread across the continent, often with the encouragement or indifference of the authorities.

From Malawi and Senegal to Uganda and Zimbabwe, politicians are denouncing homosexuals and introducing new laws to prosecute them. A growing number of Africa's gays and lesbians are facing the threat of prison or even death.

In South Africa, more than 30 lesbians have been killed in "corrective rape" cases since 1998, yet only one case has resulted in a conviction. By some estimates, at least 10 lesbians are raped or assaulted every week in the Cape Town area alone. In one of the most notorious cases, a gang of men raped and murdered 31-year-old Eudy Simelane, a lesbian who played on South Africa's national women's soccer team. She was stabbed 25 times in the face, legs and chest.

According to survivors, the attackers often shout that they are "teaching a lesson" to their lesbian victims, or showing them "how to be a real woman." Many victims never report the attacks to the police, fearing that they will be mocked or abused.

"This is a truly obscene crime, and it most often happens to black women in poor communities," said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, which is helping gay-rights groups in South Africa document the corrective-rape phenomenon.

"It's an expression of rage and fear and homophobia. There is no country in the world that has such high levels of rape and violence against women."

Even in schools, many young boys believe that lesbians need to be raped to "correct" their sexual orientation, according to the South African Human Rights Commission. "A culture of rape is being passed down to younger generations of South African men," said a report by ActionAid, an international rights group. "Women are forced to conform to gender stereotypes or suffer the consequences."

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The South African courts and police have been slow to respond to the attacks on lesbians. One court case, involving the murder of 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana by a gang of about 20 men who wanted to "correct" her sexuality, has been postponed 33 times and has dragged on for five years without a resolution.

One case has finally sparked global attention. Millicent Gaika, a 30-year-old lesbian in a township near Cape Town, was raped and beaten for five hours by a man who tried to strangle her with barbed wire. "I know you are a lesbian," the man told her. "You are not a man. You think you are, but I am going to show you. You are a woman."

A photo of her badly bruised face and scarred neck has galvanized action on the Internet, leading to petitions that have gathered nearly a million names around the world, calling for such cases to be prosecuted as hate crimes.

But the official response to Ms. Gaika's rape was typically weak. A man was arrested for the rape, but was freed on bail. When he began following and threatening Ms. Gaika and Ms. Funda, he was rearrested and released again, with his bail set at a minimal 60 rand (less than $10).

Elsewhere in Africa, the anti-gay climate is even more extreme. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has described gays as "lower than dogs and pigs." Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has called for the arrest of homosexual men and women. Authorities in Senegal imposed an eight-year jail sentence on nine gay activists. Ugandan MPs and cabinet ministers have tried to pass a law imposing the death penalty or life imprisonment on gays. An MP in Botswana described gays as "demonic and evil." Gambia's president has promised to expel gays from his country.

"It's as if they have license to be as cruel and punitive as they can," said Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and former UN ambassador on AIDS in Africa. The homophobia will only worsen Africa's HIV and AIDS crisis, he warned.

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Of the 53 nations on the African continent, 38 have laws that criminalize homosexuality. Malawi recently toughened its laws to criminalize lesbians as well as gay men. Last year two gay men in Malawi were sentenced to 14 years in prison for holding a symbolic engagement ceremony. Only after protests by the United Nations and many others were the two men finally pardoned.

In many African countries, hatred of gays has escalated into violence and even death. One Ugandan newspaper published the names and photos of dozens of gays, with the headline "Hang Them." Several gays on the list were attacked, pelted with stones or forced into hiding, and one gay activist on the list – David Kato – was brutally murdered.

Some African politicians have claimed that homosexuality is an "un-African" practice that was "imported" from the West. In reality, according to researchers, it is homophobia that was imported from the West, in the form of sodomy laws introduced by British colonial rulers and anti-gay campaigns by U.S. Christian evangelists. Evidence shows that gays were accepted in African societies in the past, they say.

While the threat of violence and prison is forcing many African gays to go underground, the war is not over. In a few South African black townships, lesbian volunteers are going door-to-door to raise awareness of their issues. A growing coalition of rights groups is fighting against "corrective rape." And after the global petition produced so many thousands of e-mails that the government pleaded for it to stop, Ms. Funda and other activists were granted a two-hour meeting with senior Justice Ministry officials on March 14.

The officials promised Ms. Funda that they would take action on the corrective-rape issue, including setting up a meeting with top police commanders. "The meeting was exciting," she said. "It was great."

The man who threatened her is still free, and she is still cautious about going outside at night. But she wants lesbians to report any violence against them, even if they suspect the police will ignore the cases.

"We want the victims to tell their stories," she said. "It's not going to be easy, because there is no protection for them. But justice needs to be done, one way or another."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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