- The recent brutal murders of three South African lesbians has prompted the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to submit a protest letter to President Thabo Mbeki, asking him to explain how constitutional promise of ensuring could become a reality in post-apartheid South Africa.
“As the country celebrates National Women’s Day – the 51st anniversary of women’s resistance to the apartheid-era pass system restricting free movement – a climate of violent homophobia and sexism demands government action to make its commitment to equality and tolerance a reality for the nation’s gays and lesbians,” the HRW said.
The bodies of Sizakele Sigasa, 34, and Salome Masooa, 24, were found in a field in Meadowlands, Soweto on 8 July. Sigasa had been shot six times while Masooa once.
Sigasa was openly lesbian and an activist for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights.
On 22 July, the naked body of the 23-year-old Thokozane Qwabe was found in a field in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal. She had multiple head wounds. Qwabe was said to be a victim of rape.
“Despite legal commitments to equality for all, lesbians in South African townships are still targeted for rape and murder,” said Jessica Stern, Researcher in LGBT Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. “Poverty, prejudice, homophobia and sexism are building a new pass system, where many women dare not walk openly on the street.”
Activists have expressed fury over the way the police have been handling the cases. The police could not tell whether the victims’ sexual orientation was a motive for the murders.
One person was charged in connection with Qwabe’s death. Four have been detained for the murder of Sigasa and Masooa.
Despite enacting the landmark 1996 constitution that ensures equality and discrimination based on sexual orientation, inequality and violence still persists in South Africa.
In March last year, a 19-year-old Cape Flats township, Zoliswa Nkonyana, was murdered by a mob. Her friend who escaped later recounted how the mob accused them of being “tomboys” who “wanted to be raped.”
A joint report of Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission - “More Than a Name” - documented the experiences of lesbians who survived rape or lived in perpetual fear of rape, as well as partial or inadequate investigations by authorities into allegations of homophobic abuse.
Stern said the lives of lesbians are not expendable. “On National Women’s Day, South Africa’s government must honor 50 years of women’s struggles against racism and injustice by affirming that all women and vulnerable groups must be safe and free,” she suggested.
South African government has been urged to ensure the ongoing investigations of the murders are thorough and impartial, and that they lead to identification and successful prosecution of those responsible. The government is also urged to reaffirm equality before the law and to launch public education campaigns to eliminate homophobic prejudice in all walks of life.
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