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S Africa must do more to protect lesbians - group

Written by: Staff
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JOHANNESBURG, March 4 (Reuters) South Africa must do more to protect lesbians from violence after a 19-year-old woman was beaten and stabbed to death because of her sexuality by a gang of youths, rights group Human Rights Watch said.

The New York-based group yesterday said although South Africa had a laudable record in protecting gay and lesbian rights, this was not adequate to stem a rising wave of attacks.

The statement followed an attack last month on Zoliswa Nkonyana in the black township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town.

HRW said the girl was walking near her home on February 4 with a friend when a group of young men approached her.

They beat her with golf clubs, hurled bricks at her and stabbed her. She died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The teenager's friends were now in danger after they were pictured with her in a local newspaper, HRW said. It said Nkonyana's friend who was with her at the time of the attack had been in hiding since the incident.

''Lesbians in South Africa face abuse and violence simply for not fitting social expectations of how women should look and act,'' said Jessica Stern, researcher for Human Rights Watch's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program.

''Ten years ago, South Africa enacted the world's first constitution to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Today it's both tragic and telling that Zoliswa Nkonyana still could not be safe in her own neighbourhood.'' Homosexuality is outlawed in many African countries and is often condemned as being ''un-African'' -- a 'disease' imported from the West. In some traditional beliefs, homosexuals are said to be cursed or bewitched.

Only South Africa, whose constitution was the world's first to enshrine equal rights for gays and lesbians, bucks the trend.

In December, its top court ruled it was unconstitutional to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, paving the way for it to become the first African country to legalise same-sex marriage.

Stern said the government should improve public education to help create a more secure environment for lesbians.

The call echoed those by local activists, who have urged the government to implement laws that impose tougher sentences on hate crimes. Justice officials say it would be unfair to differentiate between sexual crimes committed against lesbians and those aimed at heterosexual women.

REUTERS CS RN0859

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