June Steenkamp and Busi Khumalo comfort each other at theHigh Court in Pretoria. Their daughters Reeva and Zanele were both killed by their intimate partners. File picture: Oupa Mokoena

South Africa has the most intimate partner violence deaths in the world: It is time to act, says Savera Kalideen.

Johannesburg - The high-profile tragedy unfolding in the High Court in Pretoria is made worse by the fact that countless similar incidents go unrecorded each day across South Africa.

As we listen to the details of how Reeva Steenkamp died after being shot by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, the trial alongside – where Thato Kutumela, 28, was found guilty of raping and murdering his then 18-year-old girlfriend Zanele Khumalo in April 2011 – is given a fraction of the attention. And this is only because the Pistorius trial is taking place next door.

In courts across the country, men standing trial for the murder or assault of their partners do so without the glare of the media – assuming they are brought to court in the first place.

Every day, three women are killed by their intimate partners. Few of these attacks reach the media; even fewer are front page news. Many are never followed up through the justice system.

The statistics are shattering: South African women are more likely to be killed by their intimate partner than by a stranger.

South Africa’s murder rate declined between 1999 and 2009, but the incidence of women killed by their intimate partners increased from 50 percent to 57 percent.

Half of these women were killed by partners they were living with, while 30 percent were killed by men they were dating, and 18 percent by their husbands, according to research studies co-authored by the Medical Research Council’s Rachel Jewkes.

A 2009 study, “Mortality of women from intimate partner violence in South Africa: A national epidemiological study”, by Abrahams et al, showed that more women are killed by their current or ex-intimate male partners in South Africa than in any other country.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says alcohol consumption, especially at harmful and hazardous levels, is a major contributor to intimate partner violence.

The links between alcohol consumption and intimate partner violence are many. They include a reduction in self-control and an inability for the partners to negotiate a non-violent resolution to problems in the relationship; excessive drinking leads to increased financial stresses that, in turn, lead to increased relationship tension; the use of alcohol as an excuse for violent behaviour; and the exposure of young children to violent behaviour, which is more likely to lead them to display harmful drinking behaviour in later life.

The WHO notes that 65 percent of women experiencing spousal abuse in South Africa report that their partner “always or sometimes used alcohol before the assault”. Alcohol consumption by the victims of such abuse is also shown as a coping mechanism.

Society’s tolerance of such behaviour must also be questioned. The WHO notes that societal beliefs about alcohol consumption, gender roles and violent behaviour can also affect the risk of alcohol-related partner violence. This includes associations of such violent behaviour with masculinity and a general tolerance of violent behaviour when drunk. Many regard alcohol consumption as a mitigating factor when assessing violent behaviour, yet neither this justification nor the violence itself should ever be tolerated.

Intimate partner violence has been stifling the growth of women and reducing their ability to take advantage of opportunities created by our young democracy.

There are many strategies to address this complex problem, but it is unclear whether there are sufficient financial resources or the necessary political will.

NGOs working in this area are consistently under-funded or not funded at all.

The inter-departmental collaboration that is required is constantly under threat or in operation only at the higher levels of government, but lacking as one goes lower down the bureaucratic structure.

Our current intervention strategies are skewed towards ensuring a justice-system-based solution. Yet despite the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 and the Sexual Offences Act 32 of 2007, women are still unable to access legal support.

Women also battle to find somewhere to live if they do leave their partners, since the number of shelters in South Africa for battered women are wholly inadequate given the scale of the problem.

Ad hoc interventions offer only short-term solutions so any intervention must be designed to be long term and sustainable.

The WHO notes that preventative measures must include “addressing societal tolerance towards intimate partner violence, acceptance of excessive drinking as a mitigating factor and normative beliefs about masculinity and heavy drinking”.

Interventions to reduce alcohol consumption will also support such efforts.

These interventions include banning alcohol marketing, reducing alcohol availability, regulating alcohol prices and providing treatment for alcohol use disorders.

Understanding the perpetrator and what leads them to rape and perpetrate violence is critical. A study by Dr Amelia Kleijn, an independent social worker and researcher, shows that child rapists were all severely beaten, on an ongoing basis, as children.

Providing an integrated approach to domestic violence would include supporting health workers to ensure early identification of incidents of violence, ensuring health workers know and understand the implementation of the law related to violence, providing psychological support for those affected by violence and establishing long-term community-based programmes to work on prevention.

Global studies have shown that health systems play a crucial role in responding to gender-based violence.

In fact, cost-effectiveness analysis shows that dealing with gender-based violence in health settings provide savings down the line through improved outcomes and reduced expenditures on health, social and legal services.

The media also has a crucial role to play by keeping the issue on the nation’s agenda even when the people involved are not high-profile celebrities and by creating a public platform for discussion about the underlying motivations and attitudinal drivers of the behaviour; and the many insidious ways in which social norms actually support the perpetrator.

We need to develop a response that identifies and counters the problem earlier.

This includes the provision of parenting training, services and social support for women and children, and changing community attitudes to gender inequality and all forms of interpersonal violence, including gender-based violence.

The impact of intimate partner violence extends beyond the immediate survivors.

Instead, we count the cost over generations, with children, families, communities and ultimately the country paying the price.

There can be no better tribute to Reeva Steenkamp – and all the other women who lost their lives at the hands of their partners – than for the government and other stakeholders to accelerate existing efforts so that we can realise the vision of the home being the safest place for a woman.

* Savera Kalideen is senior advocacy officer at Soul City.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star