Likamva Cekiso was cleaning her older cousin’s room when he walked in, shut the door and locked it, trapping her in darkness and fear.
He turned up the music and attacked her in a horrific demonstration of his masculinity that was aimed at “correcting” her sexuality.
“I was living as a lesbian, that’s why he raped me,” the 29-year-old said. “He told me that a woman does this with a man, not with a lady.”
The woman had a daughter, now aged 11, after she was assaulted a second time by the same cousin.
Cekiso’s world as a lesbian living in South Africa’s gritty townships is far removed from the country’s same-sex wedding celebrations, gay pride marches and liberal laws championing sexual diversity.
Lesbians, already targets amid rampant violence against women, face staggering threats in the densely packed, impoverished streets — from ridicule to “corrective” rapes aimed at turning them to heterosexuality.
“I was attacked, I think, about four times,” said another woman, Lindeka Stulo, 25, who spent a month in a hospital with a broken leg after the first brutal beating. “At the time they were hitting me, they said I must change — I’m a girl, I cannot date another woman, so he’s going to show me that I’m a woman. He’s going to hit me and rape me.”
Stulo’s fight-back attitude has seen her escape rape, but she is aware of the threat of sexual attack and worse.
The discovery last year of a friend’s decomposing body stuffed into a garbage can was disturbingly close.
“My biggest fear is, I think, everybody saying the same thing every year to me: You’re going to be raped, you’re going to be raped, you’re going to be raped,” she said, explaining that lesbians are seen as virgins and therefore “good meat.”
On paper, South Africa’s approach to gay rights is admirable.
There are constitutional guarantees of equality, and in 2006 it became the world’s fifth, and Africa’s only, nation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Yet the townships, where blacks were forced to live under apartheid, remain largely conservative with deep-set notions of masculinity, tradition and religion and little understanding of what it means to be gay.
Lesbians not only face being thrown out by their own families, but even the police, meant to protect them, are said to laugh or to call their fellow officers to listen in when the women report hate crimes.
The government has set up a task team, is targeting hard-hit areas and has started sensitizing staff to stamp out secondary victimization, said justice ministry spokesman Tlali Tlali, who slammed the crimes as “barbaric.”
“We view the matter in a serious light. There must be no space allowed for those behind hate crimes to operate. Conduct of this nature flies in the face of our constitution and its values,” he said. “We are not oblivious to the challenges that lie ahead. We are aware that some of these challenges are found in our agencies responsible for law enforcement.”
The team is set to recommend how to go about changing mindsets — such as that being gay is un-African or that lesbians steal women from straight men.
“I would say that black women living in townships are the ones that are more affected because of our culture,” said Bulelwa Panda of iThemba Lam, a township gay rights Christian center and safe house. “The biggest threat is to be raped, and by living in a community that doesn’t understand who you are, that’s another challenge because the people around you need to be educated.”