Saving women's lives – and men's

2013-02-15 23:06

Think about this: in the 30-odd hours since Reeva Steenkamp died, another five or six women have died at the hands of their intimate partners - one every six hours, according to the Medical Research Council’' 2004 Policy Brief.

And most of them - 82-odd percent of the 1 500 women killed each year by husbands, boyfriends and partners - were killed with legally-owned guns (Guns and gender-based violence in South Africa, Naeemah Abrahams, Rachel Jewkes, Shanaaz Mathews, South African Medical Journal, September 2010, Vol. 100, No. 9).

Here's a Proudly South African moment for you: no other country, not a single one in the world, has such a high reported rate of women murdered by shooting – unless that country is at war.

And even in the States, which we’re accustomed to thinking of as a gun-culture, women are killed by their intimate partners at just about half the rate of South Africa.

In the last two weeks, we've been a country in shock as our noses were rubbed in South Africa’s rape statistics (about 65 000 a year, in case you’ve been in Bhutan for the duration, with 28% of men admitting to having raped).

Now the blissfully ignorant have a new set of lessons to learn: about women being killed by the men closest to them. And with the issue of domestic violence raising its vicious, brutal head in connection with the Reeva Steenkamp case, we’ll also learn that more or less every second woman you encounter has experienced abuse of this sort, and 40% of men have committed it.*

As the struggle song says, "Senzenina, senzenina?" (What have we done? What have we done?) 1 Billion Rising is testament to the global prevalence of violence against women, but dear heaven, there's no place like home, is there? (And wasn’t it ironic that on the day of 1 Billion Rising, the news almost around the world led with the death of a woman?)

Is this the freedom that we fought for? Hell no! Women in South Africa are under siege. Women of every class and kind, rich and poor, have reason to be nervous, hypervigilant and fearful, in public spaces and the 'safety’'of their homes.

But when President Jacob Zuma made his State of the Nation Address, at a time when the horrifying reality was so raw and real, he devoted just more than 5% of his speech to making some predictable comments about the issue.

"The brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women is unacceptable and has no place in our country. Last year the National Council on Gender Based Violence was established."

Thanks, Mr President: it was finally launched at the end of the wonderful and highly effective 16 Days of Activism (after those 16 days we can, of course, wash our hands of the whole unpleasant subject for the remaining 349 days of the year).

Facing head-on the task of dealing with the enormity and scale of the problem, the Council has met precisely once since then, I am told. (In the same time-period, more than 250 women died from a gunshot by their partners, and well over 10 000 were raped.)

The president pats his government on the back about the re-establishment of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units in 2010, and their fabulous conviction rates: 'During the last financial year, the units secured over 363 life sentences, with a conviction rate of 73% for crimes against women above 18 years old and 70% for crimes against children under 18 years of age."

But we're told by experts in the field that, at least in the case of child abuse, this is because the units select the cases most likely to succeed; for every successful conviction, hundreds of cases are withdrawn. 

I’ll bet the same applies to crimes against women. And stacked up against the massive scale of rape, domestic violence and murder, 363 life sentences looks pretty shabby, doesn’t it?

If it has no place in our country, Mr President, this ‘brutality and cruelty’ you deplore, why don’t you make a real, powerful stand against it?

We've known about it for long enough, heaven knows. This problem is not new. Organisations and entities like the Medical Research Council, the Tshwaraneng Legal Advocacy Centre, Rape Crisis and others have been churning out documents, research papers and policy recommendations for decades.

Here’s what they tell us, Mr President:

Patriarchy is at the heart of this problem.

Oh, there are other factors: poverty and inequality, alcohol, exposure to violence... but patriarchy is the central factor.

South African men, whatever their class or job or race or religion, are raised in a society where they are automatically accorded a dominant status that is privileged and rewarded over women. Men are in charge; men make the decisions. It’s as natural to our society as the air we breathe. Most men (and many women) don’t even see how men are privileged.

But they are. Ask my young township friend who wanted to try her hand at playing the piano in church. The shocked response was, '"BOYS play the piano! Girls must make the tea."

Ask the ad agency executive who has just discovered that the young man in the office next to hers earns 20% more than her – for no other reason except that he’s “got a dick”, to quote the film Made in Dagenham. 

Ask the editor who was told by her publisher that "women can't run companies – they’re too emotional". Or the middle-management woman who was told that "women aren’t allowed in the boardroom"!

We went from the Calvinistic apartheid society where "the man is head of the woman as Christ is head of the church" to a society where modern revolutionaries embrace centuries-old patriarchal values (as enshrined, for example, in the now-withdrawn traditional courts bill).

That’s not unusual. Revolutions and liberation movements seldom benefit women. They are welcome on the barricades but once the revolution is over, it’s back to doing laundry and being slapped around on a Friday night.

Those wild, free citoyennes of the French Revolution were pushed back in their place within a few years, in the kitchen. Stokeley Carmichael, one of the leading lights of the American Civil Rights Movement, famously declared that a woman’s place in the movement was ‘prone’. Iranian women played an important part in the 1979 revolution against the Shah, only to lose their rights thereafter. Egyptian women are still struggling for recognition of their rights in a post-Arab Spring country.

Patriarchy is unhealthy for men as well as women. The ‘tough-guy’ machismo at its core makes men less able to express emotions, to engage in meaningful relationships, to seek healthcare, to opt out of violence and aggression as solutions... there’s a list as long as my arm (see for more). A co-operative society, where the genders play a more equal role, would be less violent (and not just to women, either).

But how do we get there? That takes vision, political and societal will and leadership. And we seem to have a paucity of all three. We have some powerful women and women’s organisations fighting this battle; what we need is men who want a better world for their daughters and sister and wives – and themselves. If we can’t find them in our political leaders, can we find them in civil society? Will these shocking, headline-riddled couple of weeks have raised the ire of decent men and made them understand – and want to fight – the dreadful toll that their fellow men are exacting? I hope so – but a lifetime’s experience has taught me not to hold my breath.


*Every time someone raises these issues, without fail a man will bring up the fact that men get raped and abused and killed by their partners too.

That's true, and we must never forget it. However, research around the world indicates rape and abuse of men by women occurs in relatively small numbers.

In some countries, the difference between genders is not quite so stark. But in South Africa, women-on-men violence is dwarfed by the vast, almost unfathomable numbers where the violence flows the other way.

  • ColinShephard - 2013-02-16 00:06

    Patriarchy is not at the heart of this problem. Rape is merely a symptom and not the disease. The problem is a society where no one takes responsibility. Crime, government corruption, poverty, illiteracy blame apartheid. Rape, blame patriarchy. Riots, blame the employers. Murder, blame guns. No one ever takes responsibility. And because no one takes responsibility no one does anything except complain about nobody doing anything. Want to change the country? Take responsibility for your own actions, then take responsibility for raising your kids not to rape rob and murder. Then take responsibility for your community and the problems of the people around you.

      Jo - 2013-02-16 07:53

      I bet the cANCer would LOVE to take away all the legal guns in SA. That way we'd be at the government's mercy. They could either sit back and watch the criminals wipe the whites out or do it themselves with ease.

      marchum.burger - 2013-02-16 08:45

      I agree with Colin, also Patriarchy is around the globe, all religions practice the male as the leader of the home. Trying to blame everybody else does not solve the problem, I can never see myself hurting, raping a female and I come from a abusive broken home. Maybe the equality is the cause of this problem, don't get me wrong, we are all equall and deserve to be treated so, but I feel the world is unbalanced, unemployment is at a all time high across the world, as men the workers now compete for the jobs with women, women are no longer protected by men but are seen as competitors! I feel there is a lot more into this that I can put into this comment but maybe issue is the opposite of this article, the fight against Patriarchy! ( I know this sounds chauvinistic, it was not the intention.)

      tersia.louw.12 - 2013-02-16 09:23

      Is there a problem for you, Marchum, with women competing in the workplace? It's just, last I looked, competition was healthy and you don't win by killing the competition...

      david.boswel - 2013-02-16 10:56

      I agree but I think it is the government who should take responsibility, for if they gave the same financial aid to education as they give to themselves and the masses had a better grasp of cause and causality , so much of this pain and agony can be avoided.

  • joahan.smal - 2013-02-16 06:28

    Zuma was so right when he said that violence in this country has its roots in the apartheid era. That is when the ANC urged people to make the country ungovernable, so what he failed to mention is that we are enjoying the fruits of a legacy of the ANC. Sadly, in this ANC created lawless society there are men who deem it their right to rape and I condemn it in the strongest terms, but when pointing a finger at me because of my gender and generalizing, I tend to switch off. So to the person who wrote this; 'Grow a penis!'

  • trevor.reid.142 - 2013-02-16 13:20

    It is LEAD It is LEAD !!! When a child is exposed to lead ( mostlty indirectly from petrol, also from paint ) ,the child is at risk of having his brain damaged, in a way that will make the kid grow up into a criminal! I do suspect that the crime under discussion here are more likely committed by people with brains damaged by lead as kids. Remove lead from petrol, and 20 years later crime will drop ! In South Africa, the lead content of petrol was rather high, and lead was removed only 7 years ago, so we might have a problem. In the USA, lead was mostly removed from petrol in the 1970s, and crime dropped in the 1990s - something that criminologists did not expect. I do suspect that the murder commited by Oscar , as well as his other violent incidents, are typical of what lead can turn a person into. I also do suspect that black South Africans where more exposed to lead than white South Africans. this is a subject that requires urgent research.

  • trevor.reid.142 - 2013-02-16 13:38

    It is LEAD !! In the USA, in the 1990s, crime unexpectedly started to drop. Criminologists did not expect this drop. There is much convincing evidence that this drop was due to the removal of lead from petrol in the 1970s. Pre-school kids who are exposed to lead have their brains damaged in a way that causes them to grow up into criminals. South Africa had petrol with a high lead content, and the lead was only removed from petrol recently. This might be the real cause of the high crime rate. I feel that this is a subject that requires urgent research in South Africa.

  • joe.botha.7 - 2013-02-16 13:40

    If we assume this sky high figure is a local cultural phenomenon and further admit that we can find no clear cause, we must in the cold light of reason ask "What is wrong with SA women?" just as loudly as "What is wrong with SA men?" The mere fact that this question is not in line with the received view is not enough to discount it out of hand. Don't get me wrong, I am not making a judgement call here. I am simply questioning the approach. To me, polarising the sexes into opposite camps of victim and aggressor simply serves no useful purpose. Sadly, I sense political correctness and its implicit assumptions putting an end to this argument before it has begun.

      gary.lyon.509 - 2013-02-16 15:20

      Spot on Joe. I have argued this point numerous times. We need to address all of these very serious issues but political correctness is a very real danger to rational and informed debate on any issue. It has also been shown that nordic countries, such as, Sweden, have reversed the roles of gender rather than created a society based on true equality. The result is that no one can criticise a woman who has done wrong for fear of retribution, scorn, vilification and marginalisation. Likewise, Israel cannot be criticised over their oppression of the Palestinians; black americans over their refusal to take responsibility, and so the list goes on.

  • kseyffert - 2013-02-16 14:03

    I am concerned by the emphasis on gun related killing. This is entirely irrelevant. The women get killed and that is the crime, that is what is sick in the society. Assume for a moment that the guns were not there. would those women have still been killed? Absolutely! Guns are singled out because this is an important agenda for someone who wants to gain absolute control of our society. Lets leave it alone now and concentrate on the real statistics. How many of our woman are being killed by the very people who should be protecting them? There is the pain! That is what we as a society need to be ashamed of! It plain disgusting!

  • michelle.uys.9 - 2013-02-16 14:05

    maybe we should stop being "defenceless" - period. we dont have to be the victim. we can fight back.

  • Johan_Swart - 2013-02-16 19:10

    mmh more women should carry guns , nothing deters someone from pulling a gun more than the knowledge that the other person has one too. lots of fun shooting at somebody that is unarmed , not so much fun when that person starts shooting back

  • Xenswim1 - 2013-02-16 20:04

    The statement started well with a good message then degenerated into an anti male attack. To be frank I stopped reading when the feminist poppycock raised its head. CONSIDER - If your gender is as equal as you claim, do not ask males for favours such as wanting the extra bit of money or the promotion. Be like the rest of us work hard and ask the boss for an increase or just shut up and take it like a man. For in most work places some male will walk around doing nothing and always get paid more than another. CONSIDER - Violence against women, is it really so different to male on male violence? Consider if women are so equal why the complaint,and whimpering for special treatment. You cannot have your bread buttered on both sides. You are equal or not. NOW THE TRUTH - I am old fashioned I believe women should be loved, pampered and respected as the nurturers of the nation for it is our women that instill the moral values in our children. Women should stay at home and look after the next generation or at least until discipline is established. Finally do not have kids if women have or want to persue a career. Death do us part and all that. None of this six months and a stranger looks after your offspring. Bet that wanted to make you Hurl.

      nicola.r.davis.7 - 2013-02-16 22:16

      Xenswim1, I agree that women should focus on nurturing and caring for their kids, which comes completely natural to us. But what separates us from other female animals, is that the way in which human society is structured makes women completely dependent on men to ensure their own and their children's survival, unless they go to work and leave their babies with another woman. If that sounds like a difficult choice, then believe me, it is. Imagine if a female chimp was not able to reach out and grab a Musanga fruit for herself and her baby chimp to eat - unless she had money? Imagine if a female elephant could not lie under a tree with her baby at night - unless she had money? Imagine if a lioness was not allowed to hunt for herself and her baby - unless she had money? Imagine if a female fox could not protect herself and her babies from attack - without money? Basically, most women are forced to become completely dependent on men to ensure their and their kids' survival, which can lead to all sorts of abuse of power. Either that, or they have to spend an unhealthy amount of their time and energy on ensuring that they will not have to surrender all our power to a man, instead of being with their kids (a part-time job is pretty hard to come by and doesn't pay enough). Now you can say that women should just accept that complete loss of power over their own lives, even though no other female animal has to endure this, but would you? Be honest now, Xenswim.

      nicola.r.davis.7 - 2013-02-16 22:22

      I am not saying for a minute that most men abuse their power in this regard. I am just saying that complete loss of power is not only difficult for a woman to deal with, it's also completely unnatural. Having said all that, I also believe that in many ways women have the ultimate power because we choose which men to partner with. If most women were choosing sweet, sensitive, gentle, loyal, nurturing men every day, over aggressive, macho, hard-to-tame men, then perhaps we would not be in this situation in the first place?

  • pages:
  • 1