A little over a year ago, the body of 31-year-old Eudy Simelane was found in a park near her home on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. She had been gang raped and stabbed 25 times. Eudy was a sportscaster and a former midfielder on the South African national women’s football team. She was also a lesbian.
In a country where rape and violence against women is endemic, Eudy is one among countless victims. A recently published survey found that one quarter of South African men admitted to having committed rape. Further compounding the problem, the One in Nine Campaign, which takes its name from the grim statistic that only one in nine victims comes forward, maintains that rape is grossly underreported. This is no surprise considering that in South Africa, as elsewhere, women who are raped often find themselves blamed for it. For example, in a recent high-profile rape trial, the current president defended himself with the old she-made-me-do-it line, arguing (among other things) that the victim had provoked the sexual encounter by wearing a kanga—a traditional wrap-around garment—while she was a guest at his house. Unlike the president, however, most South African rapists are never tried for their crimes.
But Eudy Simelane’s case is somewhat different from the others. She was well-known, so the trial of the men accused of raping and killing her is bringing a lot of needed attention to South Africa’s rape crisis, especially to the targeted rape of lesbians. Dubbed “corrective rape,” The Guardian describes it as a practice wherein men—or gangs of men—rape lesbians in the belief that after sex with them, a lesbian will “become a girl.”
Earlier this year, one man accused of playing a role in Eudy Simelane’s death pled guilty to robbery and murder, but not rape. Today, the remaining suspects go to trial. Womens’ and gay rights activists are organizing around the trials—as well as around two other cases of “corrective rape”—hoping to push the government to take stronger action against rape, sexual violence, homophobia, and other hate crimes.
The convictions and sentences handed down in these cases ought to send a strong message that rape is wrong and go a long way towards improving life for lesbians—and other women—in South Africa. After all, it was the first country in the world to constitutionally guarantee gay rights, and the outcome of these cases will show whether, and to what extent, the South African government is committed to the ideals enshrined in the post-Apartheid constitution.