By Robbie Brown

South African women are the most likely in the world to be murdered by their partners - one dies every 12 hours according to a study released by the Medical Research Council's Gender and Health Unit.

The nation suffers an "intimate femicide" rate six times as high as those in America or Canada.

"The most common place for a woman to die is in her own home," said Shanaaz Mathews, a researcher at the Gender and Health Unit.

The Gender and Health Unit held a recent seminar with the Commission on Gender and Equality to discuss ways of reducing South Africa's high household murder rate.

"The gun is bought theoretically to protect the household members. In fact, it is being used against them," said Margy Keegan, the national advocacy manager for Gun Free South Africa.

GFSA responded to the sem-inar by calling for the government to maintain its enforcement of the Firearms Control Act, despite efforts by the gun lobby to dismantle the legislation.

"The material released at the seminar shows exactly why we need the Firearms Control Act," Keegan said.

But Mathews said federal legislation alone cannot reduce South Africa's problem of household violence.

Equally important, she said, is improving relationships between the genders.

Cheryl Ayogu, the coordinator for the Western Cape Network of Violence Against Women, said many men kill their wives or girlfriends because they have unrealistic expectations for their relationships.

"In relationships, we can't just expect our partners to change," she said.

The Medical Research Council also reported that only 24 percent of cases involving intimate femicide resulted in convictions of the partner. And the average sentence in these cases was less than 10 years.

The council based its findings on data from 1999, the most recent year available because of the confidentiality of crime material.

Researchers said they could not access more recent domestic violence statistics because of the poor condition of police records.

"People keep asking us, 'Is it increasing? Is it increasing?' We don't know because we can't access the statistics," Ayogu said.

The 2004 Small Arms Survey has described South Africa's firearm murder rate as "extreme".

The nation experiences 300 gun-related homicides for every 100 000 guns, compared to only four deaths per 100 000 guns in the United States and between 85 and 128 homicides per 100 000 guns in Brazil.

The GFSA held focus groups throughout the country in February and April to open a dialogue on the negative effects of guns in their lives.

At one group, a woman from Klerksdorp said guns have escalated the stakes in domestic violence cases.

"Before, if a husband wanted to discipline his wife, he would slap here. Now he can use a gun," she said.