21 February 2013

South Africa: What the Pistorius Case May Say About Gender Violence

Photo: GCIS
A rally against rape and abuse in South Africa

The Pistorius case has attracted massive public attention. Many question if it will ignite a powder keg that's been waiting to go off in South Africa, where violence against women has reached record proportions.

On Tuesday, South African celebrity athlete Oscar Pistorius was charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day. The sprinter, who made history by participating against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 Olympics, denied the charge during his bail application, saying he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder.

Only two weeks ago, the country was left in shock when 17-year-old Anene Booysen was brutally gang raped, mutilated and disembowelled, dying from injuries soon after. The two men charged in the crime face a bail hearing on 26 February.

The two cases have resulted in heated debate and public protests, with rights activists and politicians both calling for action against gender violence in a country numbed by its exposure to violent crimes.

According to one-year statistics from the South African Police Services released in 2011, seven women were murdered each day. Crime trackers estimate that one woman gets raped every 17 seconds, bestowing South Africa with the title of world rape capital, according to Interpol. Yet, less than one percent of rape cases are reported to police. Research published this year by South Africa's Medical Research Council revealed that more than a quarter of the test group of 1,738 men from all races and economic backgrounds had admitted raping at least once.

South Africa's 64,000 rapes in 2012

Amanda Gouws, a political science professor at the University of Stellenbosch and a commissioner for the South African Commission for Gender Equality, said that despite the public and media outcry around the two high-profile cases, she was not hopeful justice would be meted out for Booysen.

"I have seen too many cases that start out with a big bang, but many of them don't reach a good conclusion because witnesses were not all interviewed and evidence was contaminated or they fail because of technicalities etc.," Gouws said. "But it may be that this case was high profile and so horrific, that it will. But there are hundreds and thousands of other cases that are not."

Pistorius' arrest occurred on the same day as President Jacob Zuma's state of the nation address - a speech that many had hoped would provide direction to a country beleaguered by service delivery protests, an economic downturn and violent crime. In Gouw's view, however, Zuma, failed to adequately addressed the issue.

"If you look at what he said about violent protests in South Africa - that we need an intervention on a national, provincial and local government level, that we need a prioritisation of the role of the court - he did not say that about gender violence," she said.

In light of 5,000 protests a year and 64,000 rapes in 2012 alone, the address left her "very disappointed".

Much-needed spotlight

However, violence against women in South Africa is not confined to rape or murder. The police include non-sexual physical abuse, emotional and economic abuse, as well as stalking in its definition of "domestic violence."

Only last week, South African media reported that Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale's wife, Judy Sexwale, had accused him of all three in an affidavit filed as part of their divorce proceedings. It was not the first time that a high profile South African politician had been accused of violence against women, with Zuma himself making international headlines in 2006. Zuma, then deputy leader of the ruling party, was eventually acquitted of rape.

Lubna Nadvi, chairperson of the Advice Desk for the Abused in Durban (an NGO that provides crisis intervention to the victims and perpetrators of violence), told IPS that the country's leadership still needed to take a clear stance on gender violence.

"I think the President needs to clearly state that women and girls are not freely available as sexual objects to men, to be used and abused, nor does African or any other culture give men the right to abuse women," she said.

With violence against women on the rise in South Africa, the Booysens, Pistorius and Sexwale cases have shone a much-needed media spotlight on the issue, she said.

"If the nation as a whole doesn't take action soon, we are at risk of becoming known as a place where no woman or girl is safe anywhere, especially near her intimate partner. This should not in the least be anything we should be aspiring towards," said Nadvi.

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