Why are women paying the price for an unsafe South Africa?

The most recent spate of killings and rape has sparked outrage in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency

The most recent spate of killings and rape has sparked outrage in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency

Published Sep 8, 2019


Hell is empty And all the devils are here.

Shakespeare’s famous line from The Tempest comes to mind as South Africa reels from another epidemic of violence by men against women.

The most recent spate of killings and rape has sparked outrage in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates.

According to government statistics, more than 1500 people are murdered every month in South Africa. About 3000 women were murdered last year - or one every three hours - which is more than five times higher than the global average, according to the World Health Organisation.

Femicide, rape and gender-based violence has become so commonplace that it barely makes headlines in the national media. But recent brazen attacks have shocked even those accustomed to daily incidents of violence.

A female boxing champion was gunned down on August 30 by a man allegedly serving as a police officer. Another man was charged on Monday with attacking a Cape Town university student in a post office, and raping and murdering her.

A 14-year-old was raped, killed and her body dumped in her grandmother’s backyard.

“These murders are proof that the battleground is no longer night-time and dodgy spaces even public spaces like the post office are no longer safe,” said Given Sigauqwe from rights groups Sonke Gender Justice, calling the violence an “epidemic”.

“We need the criminal justice system to be more accountable and the perpetrators of these violent crimes to face the full might of the law,” he said.

It took savage dragging on social media, and rolling mass action on campuses and in the streets to move President Cyril Ramaphosa to finally address a nation beating the drums for a safer country for its women.

Among the violent deaths at the centre of public anger and despair recently was the rape and murder of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana inside a post office. Lured to her death, she was bludgeoned with a scale.

The government, and Ramaphosa in particular, were excoriated for their silence and inaction in the days following Mrwetyana’s murder.

Her murder, in the closing days of Women’s Month, struck a chord so deep it a fired up protests on campuses and streets across the country.

In a tribute posted on Facebook this week, her sister Khanya Mrwetyana wrote: “I’m so sorry you had to be alive at a time (when) being a woman is all it takes to set a man off. Now we hold on to the memories we shared together and the thought of what would have become of you had that man not violated you.”

Mrwetyana became the face of the #AmINext movement. Hashtags and slogans circulating widely include #RememberHer Name; #Don’tLookAway and #WeRemember.

Some of the other recent attacks:

* Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jengels was shot and killed by her police officer boyfriend in East London, who also shot her mom.

* 14-year-old Janika Mallo was murdered in her grandmother’s yard. She had been raped and her head smashed in.

* Showjumper Meghan Cremer, abducted, robbed, beaten and murdered.

* Jesse Hess, 19, first-year theology student at the University of the Western Cape, was murdered in her bed.

* Lynette Volschenk was murdered and her body dismembered. Her killer packed her body parts in black plastic bags.

* On Thursday, the badly decomposed body of yet another missing young woman was discovered. An inquest will have to determine whether 17-year- old Sandisile Mona of Plettenberg Bay was murdered.

The theme of Women’s Month this past August was #HearMeToo.

In a society mired in a culture of patriarchy and fuelled by impunity, getting action on femicide is going to be a formidable battle. Perpetrators of violence against women believe they can, and often do, get away with their crimes.

Ramaphosa expressed “deep pain and support” for the families of recent victims of gender violence, underscoring the growing political significance of the issue.

Thousands of South Africans on social media used the hashtag #AmINextProtest to call for criminal justice reform.

More than 400000 signed a petition demanding the death penalty, which was abolished in 1995, be reinstated for crimes against women.

Authorities have condemned the killings and the South African government said on its Twitter account on Tuesday that women “should not allow themselves to become victims”.

The post was deleted after being criticised for blaming victims.

“Enough of this nonsense making men’s crimes a woman’s responsibility,” tweeted South African Tessa Moore.

On Thursday, Human Rights organisation Amnesty International lambasted the government’s lame-duck response to the femicide crisis.

“Gender-based violence has reached undeniably alarming levels in South Africa,” said executive director for South Africa Shenilla Mohamed.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that women feel they have to watch what they wear in public and be careful about where they are seen socialising, for fear that they may face violent reprisals including rape or even death.

“The time for sloganeering and politicking has passed. President Cyril Ramaphosa must now translate into action his vow that ‘enough is enough’. It’s nothing short of a national emergency that femicide and rape rates are increasing countrywide, and the government must act decisively to tackle these issues.”

Mohamed said decisive action would entail appropriate training for police officers, to enable them to “sensitively and objectively” investigate incidents of gender-based violence and domestic violence.

“In order to ensure alleged offenders are brought to justice, the government must also ensure that gender-based violence is taken seriously at every level of the justice system, including by challenging discriminatory stereotypes about victims and survivors.”

In the wake of protests by students in Cape Town and at the World Economic Forum gathering in the city, on Thursday Ramaphosa announced the government’s plan to address the country’s shocking femicide statistics.

“Let us declare that enough is enough. We are going to overhaul and improve the National Register and Violence Against Women and Children. I will urge Parliament to amend legislation so that the National Register of Sexual Offenders is made public.”

He said he would propose to Parliament that all crimes against women and men attract harsher sentences.

In an interview with Femicide Watch earlier this year, the chief of the Research and Trend Analysis Branch at the UN Office on Drug and Crime, Angela Me, said it was important to teach boys and girls to look for signs of abuse in their and their friends’ relationships so that they would know how to intervene when it happened to them or people they knew.

“Women have paid a huge price in empowering themselves if you think of the many private and public battles. Women have defined different roles for themselves. But if we want to create a truly equal society, men need to go through the same transformation and establish an idea of manhood that rejects violence and the idea that men have to dominate women.

“Much of the violence against women today is related to the dominant role that men play in society.”

Me made recommendations on how the issue could be dealt with constructively: “We now need to work in two streams. One with the long-term objective of changing cultural stereotypes, which requires working with boys and girls in school and family settings to break gender stereotypes.

“The objective is not give prescriptive cultural models for boys and girls but to promote the idea that male and female need equal opportunities to play the role they want to play in the society without impositions on predefined roles.

“In the short term, we need to work to protect women who are at risk of violence and to make sure that there‘s no impunity.

“Progress has been made. We need to continue to make sure that the criminal justice has a proper response to the crime.”

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