When Funeka Soldaat went to the police after being raped, they beat her and put her in the back of the police car. “They threw me so hard into the jail cell,” she says “that my feet were no longer touching the ground.” They treated her like she was the criminal.
Rape is illegal in South Africa, so what had she done wrong? Funeka is a lesbian and South Africa is struggling with gender-based violence, rape and hate crimes. Many victims are afraid to come forward, and those who do are often victimized all over again.
I met Funeka at a meeting hosted by Triangle Project – an Oxfam partner in Cape Town that advocates against harmful behaviors towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) people. In South Africa, Oxfam supports and works with partners, like Triangle Project, to defend women’s right to live free from violence, including violence based on sexual orientation.
“We were not safe on the street, and couldn’t go to the police,” Funeka said. “I couldn’t accept that. We had to do something.”
The turning point came in 2006 after a gang of young men stoned and stabbed 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana to death in the same township where Funeka was raped a few years earlier. Zoliswa was openly living as a lesbian – what many knew was the motive behind the attack.
Funeka and several other women from the community founded the non-profit Free Gender. Under her leadership, lesbian women, the LGBTI community, straight men and women and different NGO’s protested and demanded access to justice for the community and for its lesbian women, who repeatedly experienced violence.
It took five years, but the verdict – four men were sentenced to 18 years in jail – was precedent setting, because of its length and the fact that it was concluded that Ms. Nkonyana was killed for being a lesbian.
“Now when something happens, the police know that if they don’t uphold the law, they will have to answer to someone. They also invite us to community events to talk to people. Attitudes have changed. There is more tolerance now.”
There is still a lot of work to do, however. Profound and lasting changes in attitudes and beliefs take time, and old fears are hard to overcome. For example, when asked what she had learned from her experience during Zoliswa’s trial, Free Gender member Veliza said: “I learned that there are certain areas I shouldn’t be walking around in by myself, even in my own community. What happened to Zoliswa, could also happen to me.”
But there is hope and determination for a brighter future. Triangle Project has helped Funeka and others from Free Gender document their experience in a soon-to-be-released report, and hopes that it will serve as a model for other communities affected by gender and LGBTI-based violence.
They are also building a database of cases related to LGBTI-based violence to help with lobbying and advocacy activities, and assist with the management and implementation of “safe spaces” for LGBTI people in different townships around Cape Town. Results are slow, but beginning to show. Other communities are starting to organize and speak out, demanding justice and respect for their right to live free from violence.
Melanie Gallant is Women’s Rights Officer for Communicating Change at Oxfam Canada.