Culture of Fear Undermines Constitutional Protections
March 2, 2006
Lesbians in South Africa face abuse and violence simply for not fitting social expectations of how women should look and act. Ten years ago, South Africa enacted the world’s first constitution to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today it’s both tragic and telling that Zoliswa Nkonyana still could not be safe in her own neighborhood.
Jessica Stern, researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program

The vicious murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, a lesbian killed by a mob in a Cape Flats township, points to the brutal reality that despite constitutional protections, lesbians in South Africa continue to experience egregious assaults on their human rights, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch called on the South African government to ensure that their ongoing investigation of the murder is thorough, effective, and capable of leading to the successful identification, prosecution, and punishment of all those responsible. According to local media reports, six young men have been arrested and charged with murder. Human Rights Watch also called on the authorities to provide police protection to Nkonyana’s friends and to other lesbians who are at risk of violence in the wake of the attack.

Nkonyana, a 19-year old lesbian from the Khayelitsha township near Cape Town, was walking near her home February 4 with a lesbian friend. The friend said they were confronted by a schoolgirl who taunted them for being “tomboys” who “wanted to be raped.” A mob of young men gathered around them. Nkonyana’s friend ran away, but the mob caught Nkonyana. They beat her with golf clubs, threw bricks at her, and stabbed her. She died in the hospital shortly thereafter.

“Lesbians in South Africa face abuse and violence simply for not fitting social expectations of how women should look and act,” said Jessica Stern, researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program. “Ten years ago, South Africa enacted the world’s first constitution to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today it’s both tragic and telling that Zoliswa Nkonyana still could not be safe in her own neighborhood.”

The friend of Zoliswa who fled the attack has been in hiding, fearing for her life. A photograph of Nkonyana and three other women was published in the South African weekly newspaper The Sunday Times. Those friends are now also at risk of violence.

In 1996, South Africa became the first country to include sexual orientation in its constitution as a status protected from discrimination. Significant legal progress has followed, including the Constitutional Court’s decision on December 1 to open full marriage rights to same-sex couples. However, amid a crisis of expanding violent crime and sexual assault of women, evidence suggests that lesbians may be particularly targeted for brutal repression in their families and communities.

In a joint report with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in 2003, Human Rights Watch documented patterns of violent harassment of lesbians and the particular vulnerability of black and mixed-race lesbians in South African townships. The report called on the South African government to undertake public education campaigns on sexual orientation and gender identity, and to create more effective mechanisms to hear complaints and counter discrimination and abuse.

“Zoliswa’s murder tragically shows that violence against lesbians continues,” said Stern. “The South African government must promote equality and diversity through public education to ensure lesbians’ right to security.”

Nkonyana’s funeral was attended by her partner and more than 400 people from the community. The first ever gay pride march in the township of Guguletu outside of Cape Town took place February 19 in her honor.

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