An annual report by the US State Department on human rights in Zimbabwe has said that gays and lesbians in the country face harassment and rape by people trying to ‘cure’ them.

It said that lesbians were sometimes raped, even by their family members, to try and turn them straight, while gay men were forced into heterosexual sex.

Associated Press reports that Amanda Porter, political officer at the US Embassy in Harare, said yesterday: “Some families reportedly subjected men and women to corrective rape and forced marriages to encourage heterosexual conduct.”

Sodomy is illegal in Zimbabwe and punishable with up to a year in prison or a heavy fine.

Although there have been no recorded prosecutions in recent years, gays and lesbians say they face harassment and stigma in the community.

The country’s only gay group, Gays and Lesbians Association of Zimbabwe (GALZ), has warned that gays live in fear and are driven underground.

According to the report, GALZ has faced “discrimination and interference” in the last year from official sources.

Ms Porter said yesterday that gay victims of crime rarely reported incidents to police and that homophobic statements made by politicians contributed to homophobia.

President Robert Mugabe described homosexuality as “madness” last month and has said in the past that gays and lesbians are worse than “dogs and pigs”.

He made his latest remarks while promising that gays would not be included in the country’s new constitution.

Prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has urged against discrimination in the past, said that men should be proposing to women, not other men.

Ms Porter said that the report had given more focus to gay and lesbian issues than in previous years. She said this reflected the Obama administration’s concerns over homophobia.

The report also found that gays and lesbians were more likely to leave school early, become homeless and fail to find employment.

HIV and access to sexual health services were found to be particular issues for the gay community and the report said the government had failed to address HIV levels in gay men, despite agreeing to do so in 2006.