A landmark ruling in the South African criminal courts has delivered a crucial victory for the country's gay and lesbian community.
Same-sex marriage is legal in South Africa, and the constitution protects against discrimination based upon sexual orientation. But, until recently, the law did little to punish the men who raped gay women to "correct" them.
That changed last week when four men were sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian. According to leading gay rights advocates, this has “set a precedent” in the country.
A brutal 'cure'
Despite the laws protecting the gay community, homophobia persists in South Africa, and hate crimes against lesbians and transgendered individuals largely go unpunished. Violent crimes, often referred to as “corrective rape”, are carried out by men who believe they can “cure” lesbians and bring them to the “correct” sexual orientation. These brutal attacks have left at least 31 people dead in the last decade, and it's estimated that in Cape Town alone each week 10 women are raped because they are gay.
Yet it is not just the attacks that have affected the lesbian community so negatively. Rather, it is the deliberate disregard of the police forces in the townships. Officers often ignore reports – or actually ridicule the victims – and rarely prosecute the attackers.
This why the past week’s ruling was so important: because the magistrate made a direct link between the hate crime committed and the lengthy sentence he imposed. It's the first time that South African authorities have enforced harsher penalties precisely because of the homophobic hatred and prejudice involved. Let's hope this acts as a powerful deterrent.
Take action: Support the Triangle Project, which campaigns for LGBT rights in South Africa
Further reading: Human Rights Watch's latest report, ‘We’ll Show You You’re a Woman’: Violence and Discrimination Against Black Lesbians and Transgender Men