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“Corrective Rape” in South Africa and the Limits of the Rule of Law

According to this seemingly reliable story, coming out as a lesbian in parts of South Africa carries substantial risks. They have been subjected to “corrective rape” and, at least in one case documented in the story, disregard (and worse) by officials when they report what’s happened.

South African women and a man in South Africa

A group of women are shouted at as they walk through Soweto.

The misconduct by officials, at least, is in clear defiance of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, which broke ground by including sexual orientation as a category protected against “unfair discrimination.” I  (Bill of Rights, Section 9 (Equality), ¶ 3.) And the national legal system, at least, takes this anti-discrimination promise seriously: In 2006, acting after the Constitutional Court had required marriage equality, the Parliament enacted a conforming law. But matters on the ground, as we like to say these days, are obviously quite different.

Why? The long-term oppression of apartheid is surely one reason. Don’t expect sudden respect for the rule of law when the legal system itself, through an elaborate and ruthlessly enforced set of rules, ensured oppression. Then there’s religion: One man in the story at the top of this post attempts to justify these horrific acts by saying that “There is no mention of lesbians in the Bible.”

But there’s more to it than that. The story is based on events in a black township outside of Cape Town, and — at the risk of unwarranted generality — this isn’t the only instance of “traditional” views impeding progress and public  health. Another chilling example is the rape of young girls — even babies — by HIV-infected men, on the “theory” that sex with a virgin will rid them of the disease. This post gathers these cases and others into an informative story, which links to discussion of a study by South African’s own Medical Research Council.

According to the professor who carried out the research:

We have a very, very high prevalence of rape in South Africa. I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It’s rooted in an African ideal of manhood.

If this is the (or even a) notion of “masculinity” still at work in South Africa, we should at least put aside any impulse toward cultural relativism long enough to denounce it, loudly.

Does this make national law and policy irrelevant? In the short term, maybe; but constitutional rulings aren’t for the short term. The court gets it; and both the national legislature and public health officials understand the need for change, too. But marriage equality in (at least parts of ) such a nation is legal formalism, nothing more. What same-sex couple will marry when violence can be expected to follow? Only those much more courageous than I’d ever be.

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