Elsies River residents protest during the arrival of a man accused of killing three-year-old Courtney Pieters. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane
Two front-page articles in the Cape Times of Friday, May 12 are headed “The scourge of femicide”. It is interesting that the dictionaries I make most use of do not offer a definition of “femicide”. This may remind one of the approach: if it has no name, it does not exist. But this omission might simply be because the concept of femicide is fairly new and the word has not been taken up in the dictionaries I make use of.

But femicide does exist. The closest cousin of “femicide” is “homicide”, which means murder. Femicide is distinguished from homicide in that the latter refers to the death of any person, but femicide places the focus on women and girl children. Femicide thus refers to the murder of women and female children.

The past few weeks and months have seen a disturbing number of media reports on, especially, female children going missing, eventually to be found dead. Women and children are the most vulnerable members of our society, at least physically.

Yes, femicide does exist. Think of Rene-Tracy Roman, whose decomposed body was found in a shed near where she lived. Her hands and feet were bound and she was half-naked. She was 13.

And 11-year-old Stacha Arendz, whose body was found in a bush near her home. She had been raped and killed, allegedly by a neighbour. Also, four-year-old Iyapha Yamile about whom I wrote in this column recently. Iyapha’s body was found in a plastic bag near her aunt’s home.

And now, three-year-old Courtney Pieters, who went missing a week or so ago, has been found dead. I have just now heard the news on radio that a man has been arrested in connection with her death.

A case that has received good coverage recently is that of the murder of Karabo Mokoena. Mokoena had not only been killed, but her body was also burnt. Another tragic incident concerns Nosipho Mandleleni who, it was reported, was beaten repeatedly with a sjambok and a broomstick.

Her sister found her bleeding to death. Nosipho’s boyfriend, Patrick Wisani, was charged with her murder and has been given a sentence of 20 years in prison.

These are but a few of the girls and women found murdered after, perhaps, going missing.

The question that comes to mind is: how do communities deal with this phenomenon? One way to deal with the issue is simply to do nothing. Many people remain quiet, even if they have information to share with an investigating team. A reason is possibly that they fear intimidation or that they fear for their lives.

Another way of addressing the situation is to go the route of the vigilante. A case in point is that of the community who turned on the mother and sister of one of the men who have been accused of the murder of Iyapha Yamile.

This mother and her daughter had to resort to locking themselves in the taxi that had brought them to the court where the murder accused appeared. Police had to intervene and the taxi carrying the mother and daughter was escorted from the scene.

Another reaction on the part of the community has been to call for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Before 1994, the death penalty was in force in South Africa and could be visited upon someone who had been charged in a court of law and found guilty of what was known as a capital crime.

With the advent of democracy in 1994, the death penalty was abolished. From time to time, there have been calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty and recently there have again been such calls. These calls went out especially after the murder of Courtney Pieters.

I think back to when I was a young parent and my children were very young. Should one of them have suffered the fate of the children I have focused on, I suspect I would have wanted the death penalty to remain in force. Especially where our children are concerned, issues about their suffering and punishment that must be meted out become emotive issues.

The question that arises is: is the death penalty ever warranted? In post-Nazi Germany and elsewhere it has been effected, for example, in the case of Nazi war crimes. In our country, it has been effected in past times for the crimes of rape and murder. However, I do not think that the death penalty is ever warranted, even if a person has been found guilty of murder. I do not believe a death warrants another death.

I believe, instead, that appropriate sentences should be meted out to those found guilty of committing horrendous crimes.

If a person is sentenced to death, the question of rehabilitation becomes irrelevant. Rehabilitation aims at eradicating the unacceptable behaviour of the perpetrator, and turning the person’s mindset to engage with salutary thoughts.

If a person could be successfully rehabilitated, such a person could contribute to the building of a better society by, for example, spelling out to others the consequences of unacceptable and harmful behaviour. I believe every offender can be rehabilitated and am therefore not in favour of the death penalty.

Lucinda Evans is a name to be noted. She is the newly appointed head of the Mitchells Plain Community Police Forum cluster. She is an activist, community worker and founder and director of the Philisa Abafazi Bethu (Heal our Women) project, a women’s and children’s rights organisation and safe house.

She has been internationally recognised for the work she has done, and has received the Chevalier de la Legion from the French government.

A positive reaction to the kind of tragedy under discussion is the reaction of members of the Lavender Hill community who were setting up the Rene Roman search group.

Evans says the newly appointed search-and-rescue group will have a two-fold purpose. Immediately when a child is reported missing, the group begins the search for the child.

She says that with missing children, you cannot wait 24 hours. The search-and-rescue group will also intervene when children are kept in unsavoury houses. The rescue group will go into the house, remove the affected children, find help for them and reunite them with their parents or appropriate care-givers.

What part can ordinary members of the community play to assist in finding missing children? Evans urges everyone who is passionate about protecting children to join the search-and-rescue group.

To begin with, the group will operate in Lavender Hill, Seawinds and surrounding areas, but is intent on helping in other areas as well. I believe search-and-rescue groups should be started all over the peninsula and elsewhere, and we should want to contribute to the work of the groups in whatever way we can.

Of course, one should be as vigilant as possible in respect of children. The sad reality is, of course, that the majority of parents in this country do not have the privilege of seeing their children to school.

They have to report to work at an early hour, and children are left in the care of others, usually siblings. In the case of three-year- old Courtney, she was left in the charge of her six-year-old brother just before her disappearance. Aside from the tragedy that befell Courtney, there is also the issue of her young brother.

Someone has rightly pointed out that this child will suffer all his life from the knowledge that he was “in charge” when Courtney disappeared. What an insufferable burden to be carried by a young child, a burden he will carry with him all his life.

Not only should one be as vigilant as possible in respect of children, one should also speak out and, if necessary, act if there is even the slightest doubt that a child is being kept in an unsafe space.

The Cape Times, in the headline to the leader of May 11, sums up what our thinking about children should be when it says: “All our children are all our responsibility.”