“South Africa is the rape capital of the world. A South African girl born today is more likely to be raped than she is to learn to read.”
“Corrective” rape refers to the practice of men raping lesbians in an effort to punish them, and “cure” them of their homosexuality. The sexual assault is typically accompanied by prolonged violence and torture, and sometimes culminates in murder. This crime has become systemic in South Africa and black lesbians from poor backgrounds are usually the victims.
According to Change.org, 150 women are raped in South Africa every day, more than 10 lesbians are raped or gang raped every week in Cape Town alone, and for every 25 men accused of rape in South Africa, 24 walk free.
Avaaz.org puts it another way: “South Africa is the rape capital of the world. A South African girl born today is more likely to be raped than she is to learn to read.”
In 2008, South African national team football player Eudy Simelane was raped, tortured and murdered. She died just several hundred yards from her family home. Simelane was a high profile victim, and her case brought international media attention to the crime. The press wasn’t enough. In 2009, Simelane’s teammate Girlie ‘S’Gelane’ Nkosi died after a similar attack.
It’s no coincidence that both women were footballers. In a country that still defines football as a male sport, it’s difficult to say what might have been seen as the more punishable gender transgression: their lesbianism or their choice to play. The world of professional football was notably – shamefully – quiet on the issue.
“Imagine the impact that an openly anti-homophobic and queer positive WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) might have, globally,” suggests From a Left Wing writer Jennifer Doyle.
“Actually, why leave this to women?” she asks, referring to the WPS. “Imagine posters [of top players] declaring ‘Simelane was my sister.’”
“Part of the reason Girls & Football SA was founded was to help girls and young women feel good about themselves just as they are,” says Jos Dirkx, who created Girls & Football in partnership with Sonia Bianchi. “This was partly influenced through an event that happened in April of 2009 when one of the players of the South African team was killed because she was a lesbian.”
She’s referring, of course, to Eudy Simelane. A quick survey of sports development publications yields countless examples of programs that use sport to empower marginalized communities.
But Dirkx’s program is a standout. Girls & Football SA has taken a proven model (use sports to build self-confidence and create opportunity) and made it intensely personal. Although “corrective” rape affects women from outside the football community, there is a definite link between the perceived gender expression of female footballers and the potential for violence.
Jonathan Clayton spoke plainly when discussing Simelane’s death in The Sunday Times, “Her sexuality and supposedly butch looks were a death sentence in a country in which the sport is still considered a man’s game by many.”
This is the brutal truth about “corrective” rape: it’s a crime perpetrated against women and girls who fail to fall in line with gender norms. That’s why Simelane and Nkosi died. That’s why lesbians are targets. And that’s why football is a particularly effective way to educate and empower South Africa’s girls.
Through strategic partnerships with the Stellenbosch Maties Football Team, Girls Action Foundation (Canada), and Sport in Society (U.S.), girls in Girls & Football SA programs get to participate in workshops run by women in football, where they learn confidence, self-esteem and body ownership.
This last is key. “Life for girls in South Africa is not easy,” Dirkx writes in her article The Untold Story of Women’s Football in South Africa. “It is estimated that one girl is raped every seventeen seconds, [and] that girls have a significantly lower chance of finishing their secondary education than boys do because of teenage pregnancy and their role as care takers in society, and that over 31% of women in South Africa are unemployed.”
Yet while sports development programs like Girls & Football SA are effective in empowering girls, “the positive effect that sport has for these girls and women is also widely ignored,” Dirkx explains. “With the coming of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, there is no better time than now to invest in women’s development through sport.”
Football has proven repeatedly to be an equaliser – an agent of empowerment at the grass roots level – and it is vital that football’s transformative power is not diluted to the point of neutrality when tested on a larger scale.
Girls & Football SA appears to be making progress with their programs. Indeed, according to South African National Women’s Football Team manager Fran Hilton-Smith, “Girls & Football SA will continue [to make], and has already made a massive difference in the lives of young girls in this country”.
That difference is in helping to create a culture where girls are active participants, team members, agents of their own bodies. Where girls get and give support to each other, and where their gender may be expressed – unpunished – on a broader spectrum.
Sign Luleki Sizwe’s petition on Change.org. It calls on South Africa’s Justice Minister Jeffrey Thamsanqa Radebe to declare “corrective” rape a hate crime. At the time of this writing, the petition has collected over 140,000 signatures and has the modest goal of 150,000 names.
Sign the Avaaz.org petition that is urging action to end “corrective” rape, and which has collected over 75,000 signatures towards a goal of 250,000.
Support Girls & Football SA by donating using their online module, and by viewing and publicizing their new documentary, “Can I Kick It?”
Ed. Note: This article first appeared on In Bed With Maradona, on January 28, 2011.