Paralympian and murder accused Oscar Pistorius is seen at the high court in Pretoria during his trial on Wednesday, 19 March 2014. Picture: Leon Sadiki/Citypress/Pool

Domestic violence is not a local scourge. Almost a third of murdered women globally are killed by their partners, writes Charlene Smith.

Boston - The odds for jail time for domestic violence in the US is only slightly better than winning the lottery, according to American sociologist Evan Stark. And American police “bumbling”, as the New York Times referred to South African police this weekend, is as bad here when it comes to investigating crimes against women.

Watching the Oscar Pistorius trial has been a shaming experience for good South Africans. The international media has trumpeted excessive rates of woman abuse and police ineptitude.

But American cops also “bumble” when it comes to investigating crimes against women, especially domestic violence, which is the crime most likely to see a woman killed. The World Health Organisation reported last year that globally, women were three times more likely to be murdered if there was a gun in their home, and more than 35 percent of all murders of women were committed by an intimate partner.

In South Africa and the US three women die each day at the hands of their partner, according to 2013 US Department of Justice statistics and the South African Medical Research Council. There are 960 000 domestic violence incidents a year in the US, a nation of 310 million people, which means you have a 1 in 310 chance of being beaten by your partner here. It also means that South Africa with a population six times smaller than the US is also six times more violent towards women.

South Africa’s police, remarkably, don’t track domestic violence statistics – they’re hidden in assault stats – but South Africa’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, last year claimed that 90 percent of South African women had experienced emotional and physical abuse, 71 percent had been subjected to sexual abuse, and five out of seven children were abused.

(It’s the statistics for child abuse that Americans would find most shocking. In the US, children are not slow to report a parent who raises his or her hand.)

What stops domestic violence is an efficient response from the criminal justice system and both nations have cause for shame. The SAMRC claims that a fifth of the assailants in these cases are never prosecuted.

Leigh Goodmark, co-director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center on Applied Feminism, wrote words in the Baltimore Sun that she says still pertain.

“Despite the dedication of millions of federal dollars to police, prosecutors and judges since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 (South Africa passed similar legislation in 1998), rates of domestic violence in the United States have not appreciably declined.”

She says that not only are women loathe to report, a global problem, but “most of those arrested for domestic violence are not convicted; and when abusers are convicted, jail time is rare and minimal”.

She says that those women who do report abuse are often abused, in turn, by the criminal justice system.

“Women who express reluctance to testify against abusers are sometimes threatened with arrest if they fail to participate in prosecution; some are even told that the state will remove their children if they fail to appear for trial… Undocumented immigrant women who reach out to the criminal justice system for assistance have sometimes found themselves targeted for deportation.”

A major US National Institute of Justice research study into domestic violence in 2009 reported persistent “bumbling” detective work, as an example: “A study of domestic violence across Rhode Island in 2002, based on 6 200 police incident reports involving adult victims under 50 years of age, found the following evidence reported in cases: victim photos (17 percent), crime scene photos (16 percent), suspect photos (3 percent), physical evidence (8 percent) and weapons collected (11 percent), medical reports (9.4 percent), witnesses’ interviews (37 percent: adults 24 percent, children 12 percent), suspect statements (18 percent) and signed victim statements (53 percent). The Rhode Island data is not unique.”

And a third of the reports from doctors and nurses across the country had illegible handwriting, making them useless for trials. The report said: “Either lack of victim co-operation is exaggerated or victims are not the key variable in successful prosecution programmes.”

In the Pistorius trial, Reeva Steenkamp cannot give her side of the story, but her body, forensics, and witness statements may speak for her. “Studies consistently found that the determination of prosecutors rather than the availability of victims or other evidence accounted for varying rates of prosecution.”

The report said “specialised domestic violence prosecution programmes generally support the highest rates of successful prosecution”.

South Africa had this before President Thabo Mbeki closed most, and watered down what remained, but these specialised courts remain better than what is found in most of the US.

The Pistorius trial is seeing extensive coverage in the US media, but what is striking is how quick South Africans are to criticise their country, as they should for its excessive crime and failures in policing.

But South Africans are also slow to do the research to show that some of our sins are not unique.

Violence against women and ineffective prosecutions are a global problem.

Crimes that harm women are the least likely crimes to result in an effective prosecution in any country of the world.

And that should give us all pause.

* Charlene Smith is a South African-born, multi-award-winning journalist and author who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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