The recent brutal murders of three lesbians show that South Africa’s constitutional promise of equal protection has yet to become a reality, the New York based Human Rights Watch said in a letter to President Thabo Mbeki.

As the country celebrated National Women’s Day on Thursday – the 51st anniversary of women’s resistance to the apartheid-era pass system restricting free movement – “a climate of violent homophobia and sexism demands government action to make its commitment to equality and tolerance a reality for the nation’s gays and lesbians,” said the organisation.

On July 8, the bodies of Sizakele Sigasa, age 34, and Salome Masooa, age 24, were found in a field in Meadowlands, Soweto. Sigasa had been shot six times; Masooa had been shot once. Sigasa was openly lesbian and an activist for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s rights.

In another case, believed to be unrelated, the body of Thokozane Qwabe, age 23, was found in a field in Ladysmith, KwaZulu-Natal, on July 22. She had multiple head wounds and was naked. Local nongovernmental organisations have informed Human Rights Watch that, based on how the bodies and clothing were found, they suspect rape in both cases.

“Despite legal commitments to equality for all, lesbians in South African townships are still targeted for rape and murder,” said Jessica Stern, researcher in the LGBT Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. “Poverty, prejudice, homophobia and sexism are building a new pass system, where many women dare not walk openly on the street.”

Police have refused to speculate on whether the victims’ sexual orientation was a motive for the murders. They have detained, but not arrested, four people in connection with the murders of Sigasa and Masooa, and have reportedly arrested and charged a suspect in Qwabe’s death.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution contains landmark equality protections that made it the first constitution in the world to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, inequality as well as violence persists.

A mob murdered Zoliswa Nkonyana, a 19-year-old lesbian in a Cape Flats township in March 2006. A friend walking with Nkonyana escaped and later recounted how the mob accused them of being “tomboys” who “wanted to be raped.” “More Than a Name,” a joint report of Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, documented the experiences of lesbians who survived rape or lived in perpetual fear of rape, as well as partial or inadequate investigations by authorities into allegations of homophobic abuse.

“Lesbians’ lives are not expendable,” said Stern. “On National Women’s Day, South Africa’s government must honor 51 years of women’s struggles against racism and injustice by affirming that all women and vulnerable groups must be safe and free.”

Human Rights Watch called on the South African government to ensure that the ongoing investigations of these murders are thorough and impartial, and can lead to the identification and successful prosecution of those responsible. It also emphasised the importance of recognising that the victims’ sexual orientation and gender may have been a motivating and aggravating factor in the crime. It urged the government to reaffirm equality before the law and to launch public education campaigns to eliminate homophobic prejudice in all walks of life.

It called on police and other authorities to work closely with groups working for LGBT and women’s rights in pursuing investigations, developing effective policies, and in building trust with their communities. Human Rights Watch also urged constitutional bodies charged with promoting equality – including the Human Rights Commission and Gender Equality Commission – to take up issues of sexual orientation and gender identity meaningfully and directly.

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