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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Femicide and South Africa

For those of us who have been following the increasingly bizarre trial of Oscar Pistorious, Joan Smith in the Independent provides some context. The athlete was convicted of culpable homicide and a separate firearms charge, but he is out on bail amid speculation that he could even get a suspended sentence when he appears in court next month.

This is shocking enough but there are other things going on here:

From the outset, Pistorius was given an easy ride by much of the world’s media, who uncritically repeated his controversial defence that he accidentally shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. This is what happens when events involving famous people are viewed in isolation, as riveting individual dramas rather than belonging to a wider narrative. Why would an internationally famous runner kill his girlfriend? He says it was a mistake, but the question needs to be seen in context: why did no fewer than 1,024 South African men kill their current or former partners in 2009?

This is not a country, in other words, where such events are rare. A woman is killed by a husband or boyfriend  every eight hours, according to a study published two years ago by the South African Medical Research Council. This translates to three women a day, and the study actually showed an improvement on the situation in South Africa 10 years earlier, when four women were dying every day. It has “the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war”, according to an article published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) in 2010.

She goes on to say that South Africa is on the list of countries where femicide – defined by the World Health Organisation as the intentional murder of women [simply] because they are women – is practised. Most victims are mixed race or black and their deaths receive little publicity, despite the dreadful injuries inflicted upon them.

In that sense Reeva Steenkamp is not typical but the way she has been sidelined in this case is not. Oscar Pistorious is symptomatic of a wider problem in South Africa.
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