Lesbian Domestic Violence: South Africa’s Invisible Epidemic. 3/2/2017
Published by NEWSDEEPLY
Intimate partner violence among lesbian couples in South Africa is
underrepresented in research and trivialized by police, leaving victims
unwilling or unable to access the protective services, says Ingrid Lynch
of LGBTI support organization the Triangle Project.
Lesbian women who were interviewed for a report on intimate
partner violence said South Africa’s “deeply patriarchal and homophobic”
society makes it difficult for them to seek help when they experience
Every year in South Africa, the courts process hundreds of thousands
of domestic violence reports and protection orders – there were 275,536 new applications
in 2015-16 alone. There has been extensive research on the nature and
causes of domestic violence in the country, with experts pointing to
inequality, power imbalances between men and women, and harmful gender
roles and narratives as the roots of the problem.
But most of the research looks at intimate partner violence (IPV)
between men and women. Little attention or funding has been dedicated to
the implications of IPV within same-sex relationships, and the result,
say LGBTI campaigners, are policy and service gaps that impact the
health and safety of many lesbian women across the country.
In 2016, the Triangle Project,
an LGBTI advocacy and support organization based in Cape Town, launched
the report “I’m Your Maker,” which details the physical and economic
violence perpetrated by and against women in same-sex relationships.
Women & Girls spoke with Ingrid Lynch, board member of the Triangle
Project and co-author of the report, about what the findings could mean
for lesbian women in South Africa.
Women & Girls: Why did the report choose to focus on lesbian intimate relationships?
Ingrid Lynch: We remain in the dark about the extent of violence
against women in same-sex relationships in South Africa, but global
studies estimate same-sex partner abuse to be at least as prevalent if
not more so than that of intimate partner violence occurring in
Lesbian and other sexual minority women face complex experiences of
violence – not only perpetrated by men in the broader gender-based
violence epidemic, but also at times in their intimate relationships.
However, when lesbian women seek help from gender-based violence
organizations such as women’s shelters, or institutions like the police,
they are often met with ignorance, or at times even hostility or
ridicule. We wanted to make a start on understanding such violence
better, so that available resources can better respond to the diverse
experiences of women.
Women & Girls: What are the drivers of violence in lesbian intimate partner relationships?
Lynch: Our research confirmed what studies in other contexts have
found – that the core drivers of intimate partner violence across the
experiences of lesbian and straight women are the same, and that among
these the influence of prevailing hetero-gendered norms stand out. What
this means is the same gender norms that facilitate violence against
women in heterosexual relationships affect women in same-sex
relationships, causing power imbalances that make violence more likely.
Women & Girls: South Africa’s legislative framework has
recognized the need for specialized support for LGBTI persons. What are
some of the factors that continue to make violence against lesbians more
likely to happen and more difficult to report?
Lynch: The women who participated in our research all described their
social contexts as deeply patriarchal and homophobic, despite the
constitutional protections that LGBTI persons are afforded in South
This means that lesbian women are particularly socially isolated when
they experience abuse, since they cannot simply reach out to others if
the relationship in which they are experiencing it is already so heavily
It also often means that lesbian women are already facing other
challenges based on marginalizing contexts, such as rejection by family
members and unemployment. For example, only 21 percent of participants
in this research were employed and only 57 percent had completed
secondary schooling. This adds exponentially to their vulnerability to
“Many lesbian women do
not want others to speak out about their experiences out of fear that it
will further fuel societal homophobia.”
There is also a measure of silencing among lesbian women themselves.
Considering the enduring stigmatization of same-sex sexualities, many
lesbian women do not want others to speak out about their experiences
out of fear that it will further fuel societal homophobia.
Women & Girls: Why do you think lesbian women have such difficulty reporting crimes to the police in particular?
Lynch: The South African police are currently not trained to respond
competently and sensitively to persons of diverse genders and sexual
orientations, despite legislative changes such as the South African Domestic Violence Act explicitly including partner abuse in same-sex relationships.
Women participating in our research recounted varied experiences of
secondary victimization from police, including police minimizing the
seriousness of the case and trivializing the abuse because it is
perpetrated by a woman. This is linked to social norms that suggest that
women are inherently non-violent and that idealize lesbian same-sex
relationships as egalitarian.
Because of these norms, in many instances reporting a case was met by
complete inaction, with the police failing to intervene or arrest the
Women & Girls: What are some of the key action points or advocacy goals for Triangle in the wake of the report’s findings?
Lynch: Triangle Project has the dismantling of patriarchal,
heterosexist and heteronormative systems and hierarchies at the core of
all of its work. However, even within supportive spaces like LGBTI
organizations or social circles, women who experience same-sex partner
abuse may be silenced and isolated. A critical step in responding to
intimate partner violence experienced by lesbian women, aside from the
work that needs to be done in terms of state responses, is to make sure
that supportive spaces for women and girls generally are also affirming
of lesbian women.
Our report, and research conducted by others, points to an urgent
need for improved and integrated responses to same-sex IPV from both the
criminal justice system as well as health care providers and other
supportive services. An important advocacy goal is therefore to apply
pressure to ensure that comprehensive training takes place, in order to
close the gap between policy development and implementation.
Where policy protections do exist, it is important to take those up.
For example, lesbian women who require protection orders should request
them and, if needed, mobilize the support of NGOs in ensuring they are