Several years ago, when I was working as an intern for Reuters in Johannesburg, a colleague and friend of mine took me with him on an assignment to Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, where he would interview a 17-year old rape-victim who was “punished” by a male family friend for being a lesbian.
Back then (mid-2004) South Africa was celebrating its first ten years of democracy. Its constitution was regarded as one among the most illuminated. It banned any form of racial, sexual, cultural and religious discrimination. In particular, the South African constitution was the first in the world to condemn discrimination based on sexual orientation.
This was particularly significant in Sub-Saharan Africa, where homosexuals were constantly harassed by governments such as those of Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma in South Africa’s neighbouring Zimbabwe and Namibia, while homosexual acts were outlawed in several countries in East Africa.
Despite that, episodes of violence against homosexuals – especially in the country’s crime and poverty-stricken townships – kept occurring on a daily basis, targeting lesbians in particular. Rape was still widely used as a “corrective” measure against girls and women whose sexual and social behaviour did not fit or was seen as not fitting within the traditional social structure. When not sexually abused, or in addition to that, some teenagers and young women were beaten up, harassed, tortured and sometimes shot dead for “behaving as men.”
Only a small percentage of these cases were reported to the police and almost none of the perpetrators was arrested, jailed or tried.
Six years later, I am no longer based in South Africa and the upcoming Soccer World Cup tends to be the dominant topic I come across when I read about this country on newspapers and news websites. I have never been a soccer fan – although I did celebrate Italy’s victory against France in the Fifa World Cup final four years ago – but an article on a football-related topic got my attention today.
The story was about a lesbian soccer team, whose members use sport to raise awareness over homosexual women rights in South Africa’s townships. The “Chosen Few”, which were founded in 2004 by the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), have come a long way since then: they won the bronze at the 2006 Chicago Gay Games and at the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association Cup in London in 2008.
South African lesbian soccer team Chosen Few. Photo from The New Black Magazine
Yet they are forced to train in what the Mail & Guardian reporter Barry Moody described as a “scrappy dirt wasteground bordered by a large puddle” close to the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg city centre. According to one of the team’s best players, the Chosen Few were not allowed to access any other field they tried to use for trainings.
Lesbians are still victims of prejudice and violence in South Africa’s townships and those among them who play soccer are particularly exposed to harassment and rape. Last year, a man accused of taking part in a gang-rape and murder of a lesbian soccer player was sentenced to life imprisonment in a judgment which was regarded as extremely important by human right activists in the country.
Bloggers in this platform highlighted the pros and cons of staging the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa (Johan Knols’ “World cup soccer 2010: a kick in the nuts of the poor”) and I think I can safely add a pro to that list: an event such as the Fifa Wolrd Cup can surely help raise awareness over several human right issues which are crucial for South Africa as well as for the rest of the continent.
Discriminations against homosexuals is certainly one of them, and the fact that lesbian soccer players in South Africa are among the main targets of homophobic attacks is a sad reality which could easily be addressed by the event’s organizers in advocacy campaigns and promotional messages.
After all, South Africa has been at the forefront of some major changes in the acknowledgement of gay rights in Africa. It was the first country in the continent to allow gay adoptions and same-sex marriages.
This is while in Zimbabwe's former opposition leader and current prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai backs president Robert Mugabe when he says that gay rights have no place in the country, Malawi prosecutes gay couples for illegally tying the knot and Uganda considers punishing homosexual intercourses with life imprisonment and death.
Soccer watchers from these countries and beyond will be paying a religious attention to anything related to the World Cup in the next months. Maybe this is just another opportunity South Africa, as a host country, should not miss.