Video story on LGBT human rights: Life after Nonkie

In April 2017, Nthabiseng Mokanyane’s close childhood friend Nonkie Smous was raped and murdered because she was a lesbian. Now Nthabiseng, 25, is calling for religious and government leaders to respond to escalating threats against the lesbian community in Kroonstad, South Africa.

“Since Nonkie’s death, people feel they can get away with everything,” said Nthabiseng. “Women identifying as butch lesbians are particularly singled out – being harassed for thinking they are ‘men’ and being threatened about the need to be ‘taught they are women’.”

South Africa is one of few African countries which recognises and guarantees the enjoyment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people’s (LGBTI) human rights in their constitution. Despite this, South Africa has a notoriously high rate of rape – including 'corrective rape' – used to 'cure' lesbian women of their homosexuality. According to Tracy Jean-Pierre, programme manager from Enza Social Research: “Corrective rape is a horrifying, growing trend in South Africa and a key driver of HIV infection in the lesbian community.”

LGBTI stigma and discrimination

After she was raped and murdered, Nonkie’s body was set on fire in a vacant field metres away from a local church. The murderers, known to Nonkie’s friends and comrades are out on bail, and still very visible in the community.

Although life for LGBTI people in Kroonstad – a small conservative town in the Orange Free State – was challenging before Nonkie’s murder, since her death Nthabiseng and other LGBTI activists say the levels of stigma, discrimination and abuse are increasing.

Tracy said: “The levels of fear are high – fear that they too could be murdered, fear that the perpetrators are still visible and in the community, fear that justice for Nonkie, or any other member of the LGBTI community is not a priority.”

In response to the increasing tensions and threats of gender-based violence within the community Enza Social Research applied for and was awarded a Rapid Response Fund grant, from the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, to help respond to the situation. Emergency funding made available through the Rapid Response Fund meets important human rights needs that are in fact the responsibility of the state to ensure, especially when those rights have been protected not only in ordinary law, but enshrined in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.

Stigma, discrimination and violence against LGBTI people causes many health, social and psychological issues for them, and just one example is the barriers it creates for LGBTI people to access sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV services. Police officers are required to notify rape survivors of their right to post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to minimise their risk of acquiring HIV, and to transport them to the closest available clinic. Yet few lesbians feel confident going to the police following rape, for fear of how they would be treated.

Tackling gender-based violence

In July, Enza ran a five-day training programme, which was attended by police officers from the Maokeng and Kroonstad police stations, social workers, clinical staff and LGBTI community members. The training built participants’ understanding of the legal environment and the policy frameworks that exist to address gender-based violence, with specific reference to LGBTI people and HIV.

One LGBTI activist said: “We were so used to being treated badly – as a community we don’t understand the law. We don’t want to be victims any longer.”

Tracy added: “Most police officers are not aware of the procedures that they need to follow when responding to a rape survivor. This first line defence against HIV is failing survivors of sexual violence – mainly due to a lack of training and knowledge of what to do and where to refer, although in the case of LGBTI people discrimination is also a factor. Through the training we addressed not only knowledge, but also attitudes and helped develop links between service providers and LGBTI community activists.”

Speaking out on LGBTI human rights

Since the training, the lesbian and transgender activists feel more informed about their rights and have developed a better relationship with the Department of Health. The healthcare worker who was part of the training has helped increase access for transgender people to appropriate services, and has held discussions with lesbian activists around issues of gender-based violence, and HIV. The training also resulted in the activists developing an LGBTI ally in the Department of Social Development.

Nthabiseng said: “There are those people who are willing to help. Honestly, if I were to be raped now, I would go because now I know I need to make sure that I don’t contract HIV, I need to go to the SAPS and report it and open a case.”

Although this is progress, Nthabiseng and her fellow activists feel leaders from the government and church need to increase their understanding about LGBTI issues and start speaking out for the human rights of LGBTI people.

“I feel that there is a bomb or a volcano that’s cooking to boil at some point, people are not really talking about this murder, they are not talking about our issues or acknowledging that we are here and we are here to stay,” said Nthabiseng. “But if we are really to tackle this issue, the only way we can do that is if we start at the top.”

Seeking justice for Nonkie

Nonkie’s murder has long faded from the media and public eye, but the LGBTI community in Kroonstad still need support.

Tracy said: “ENZA is committed to seeing them through this tragedy, to ensure that Nonkie receives justice and that we continue to support the activists and service providers to deal with the range of issues facing the community. But resources are needed to ensure that this work happens, in the name and memory of Nonkie Smous – out lesbian, daughter, friend, lover, and activist.”

For Nthabiseng, Nonkie’s best friend, the grief is far from over and she’s concerned that justice won’t be served. “Those people need to be held responsible, you can’t just burn somebody’s daughter like that. You can’t just kill and rape somebody, and nothing happens to you,” she said. “And the sad part is she is a true symbol of frustrations and hardships in Kroonstad. She never got employed, she never got a chance to make something of herself. And she was great, and she had a good heart, she was a hustler. She knew people, she loved people, people loved her.”

The Rapid Response Fund is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

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