On South Africa’s National Women’s Day, I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our concern over the recent murders of three women: Sizakele Sigasa, Salome Masooa, and Thokozane Qwabe. Thokozane Qwabe’s body was found on July 22; Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa’s bodies were found on July 8. All three women were lesbians. These women may be the latest victims of a pattern of violence against lesbians who are targeted in their families and communities on the basis of their sexual orientation. Human Rights Watch calls upon the South African government to honor National Women’s Day by ensuring those responsible for the murders are brought to justice and by affirming that all women, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be entitled to equality and safety.
On Sunday, July 8, the bodies of Sizakele Sigasa (age 34) and Salome Masooa (age 24) were found in a field in Meadowlands, Soweto. Sigasa was an open lesbian and an activist for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities and people living with HIV/AIDS. Sigasa had been shot six times in the head and neck. Masooa had been shot once in the head. Some of Sigasa’s hair was pulled out, and her underwear was tied around her hands, raising suspicion of rape or other sexual assault. Forensic evidence has not yet determined whether rape occurred. The women were last seen alive at a gathering of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) friends on July 7. They had left to accompany a friend home but failed to return to the gathering as expected.
On Sunday, July 22, the body of Thokozane Qwabe (age 23) was found in a field in Ladysmith, Kwazulu-Natal. She had multiple head wounds and was naked, her clothes discarded several hundred feet from her body, raising suspicion of rape or other sexual assault. Human Rights Watch is unaware of whether forensic evidence has determined whether rape occurred.
We note that police investigations into these latest murders are underway. A man seen with Thokozane Qwabe the night before her death has reportedly been arrested and charged with her murder. Police have detained, but apparently not arrested, four people in connection with the murder of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa. We welcome that these investigations have been prompt, and urge you to ensure that they are also thorough, impartial and capable of leading to the successful identification and prosecution of those responsible. The police and prosecution should also take into account the possibility that the crimes may have been motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation as well as gender.
Despite South Africa’s standard setting Constitutional protections for lesbians and gay men, and consequent legal advances, reports of endemic violence, including violence against lesbians based on their sexual orientation, persist. Human Rights Watch has previously documented on-going discrimination against women and children in general and lesbians in particular. In March 2006, a mob murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana, a nineteen year-old lesbian in a Cape Flats township. A friend walking with Nkonyana escaped, to recount how the mob accused them of being “tomboys” who “wanted to be raped.” More Than a Name, a joint report of Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, documented patterns of violent harassment of lesbians and the particular vulnerability of black and mixed-race lesbians in townships.
South Africa’s 1996 constitution contains landmark equality protections that made it the first constitution in the world to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. Section 9(3) of the Constitution states: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.” The fundamental principle of equality before the law imbues all provisions of the Constitution: “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” The Constitutional Court has consistently affirmed that discrimination based on sexual orientation has no place in the new South Africa.
In recognition of National Women’s Day, we urge you to ensure that the criminal justice system is capable of responding sensitively, effectively, and promptly to incidents of sexual and hate-based violence. A full investigation of these murders, weighing the possibility that the women’s gender and sexual orientation may have been motivations for their murders, is vital not only to achieving justice but to building trust between the South African Police Service and lesbian communities broadly. Police and other authorities should work closely with groups working for LGBT and women’s rights both in pursuing investigations and developing effective strategies and policies to improve protection.
We are heartened that the South African Human Rights Commission has met with LGBT community leaders to address the recent murders. It is urgent that all institutions charged under Chapter 9 of the Constitution to promote human rights and equality develop specific, staffed mechanisms to oversee the constitutional mandate that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, and to receive complaints if discrimination occurs.
We recognize President Mbeki’s publicly declared commitment to increase efforts to combat gender-based violence, such as the introduction of the 365 Days for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign. A component of this work must be specific public education campaigns to counter prejudice based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity. Amid a general crisis of rape in South Africa, it is critical that the specific vulnerabilities of particular communities be recognized as a part of any campaign for change. Furthermore, we urge your government to establish more effective means to record and track crimes, so that violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, as well as other vulnerable groups, can be identified and addressed. Finally, we urge you to undertake public education campaigns to counter prejudice based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.
On August 9, 1956, thousands of women demonstrated in opposition to the apartheid era pass laws. They sent a message that “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.” It is not enough for the government of South Africa to honor women’s historical courage symbolically; it must honor all women, including lesbian women, with an active commitment to protect their lives.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Deputy President
Jackie Sello Selebi, National Commissioner, South African Police Service
Joyce Piliso-Seroke, Chairperson, Commission for Gender Equality
Jody Kollapen, Chairperson, South African Human Rights Commission
Charles Nqakula, Minister, Ministry of Safety and Security