Sarah: They call it ‘corrective rape’
Sarah is from South Africa where she was victim of a horrendous practice called ‘corrective rape’. She identifies as a lesbian and was diagnosed with HIV in 2005. I came to the UK in 2005 on
Sarah is from South Africa where she was victim of a horrendous practice called ‘corrective rape’. She identifies as a lesbian and was diagnosed with HIV in 2005.
I came to the UK in 2005 on a six month visa. When I left my country, things were not going well. I came to enjoy my six months, then go home and kill myself. I had just got diagnosed with HIV, had been through rape, and was a divorcee. I was working as a house keeper, but as soon as they know you have HIV you can’t do that work anymore. I thought, “what am I going to do? What am I going to do?”
I never met anyone who overstayed their visa but my gut just told me “don’t go back”. I was very suicidal. So I started dodging bullets, living undocumented, living under the radar. It’s not an easy life. It’s hell on earth. You’ve got no papers, you can’t work. You got no roof over your head, you just have to go with the flow and swallow it until you crack.
I started going to support groups and listening to other people’s stories and I discovered that I wasn’t alone. There were thousands of people going through the same thing that I was going through. There is no war in South Africa, but some people said to me, “we know about your sexuality, find out about the laws and if you qualify for asylum.”
Corrective rape and sexual violence
Back in South Africa, I fell pregnant with the first guy who raped me. After my son was born, I got gang-raped. They call it ‘corrective rape’. That’s what it’s called. They were raping me because my friends were girls. I felt comfortable with them. I had a special interest in girls, and I behaved like a guy. I didn’t even want to wear a dress to go to church, I just wanted to wear trousers.
In my country, they take you to church to get the evil out of you, because being gay or lesbian means you’ve got demons. Girls can’t be kissing girls. So they will take you to church to lay their hands on you. That happened to me. I was called all kinds of names, and children were told not to play with me because I’m crazy.
I told the Home Office all of this, and that’s how I got my papers.
I’m still alive but most of my family in South Africa, my sister’s children, my sister in-law’s two daughters died of HIV. I lost my son and a brother. There are a lot of people dying.
In the UK, I saw that people with HIV can live long. I would look at myself and look at somebody else, and think, “she’s going through the same thing and look at the way she’s smiling and look at how she’s dressed.” And I thought, “one day I’ll get there.”
The stigma is still there. Before you tell anybody, first educate them, bring them leaflets about HIV. Then check them, observe the situation. If you decide to tell them, I recommend going to a charity called Body and Soul. They have a room where they help you tell people and they do counselling.
Professionals can be very ignorant. Sometimes, the nurses in hospital, sometimes they’d talk loud. They would say to me very loudly, “have you taken your HIV medication?” And I’m thinking, “why you shouting? Most of the other people in the ward don’t have HIV, so why is she shouting about it?” One doctor was also very abusive towards me. He refused to give me medication because he said I got my HIV in South Africa. I had to call the Terrence Higgins Trust to come and solve the problem.
Even in 2005, British people were saying asylum seekers come here to exploit the country. I used to tell them, “look at my country. As long as I lived there, I’ve seen foreigners, white people getting all the benefits. Why is it wrong for a black person to do the same?”
I know HIV is not going to kill me because now I am taking medication. Something else is going to kill me. I’m scared of heart failure, I’m scared of my asthma getting out of control. Those are the two things I’m concerned about. HIV doesn’t have that strength to kill me.
The only thing I think I’m scared about is getting old. What if my bones can’t keep up with the pain? Arthritis, stinging feelings, getting spasms on my body, these are the only things I get now but I’m worried about whether my body can cope later on.
Find out more: Corrective rape, gender-based violence and HIV
South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world. Corrective rape is a form of violent hate crime used to try and convert lesbians to heterosexuals. Gender-based violence is a significant driver of HIV particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. UNAIDS estimates that women who have experienced violence are up to three times more likely to be infected with HIV than those who have not.
Visit Rape Crisis for more information on how to get help if you’ve experienced rape. The Survivors Trust also supports those who have been through sexual violence. For services related to living with HIV, visit Positively UK.