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Victims of alleged intimate femicide in South Africa, in alphabetical order: Anene Booysen, Dianne Chandler, Kate Chiloane, Isabella Dease, Debbie Lewis, Angela Marinus, Tsoholofelo Mofokeng, Karabo Mokeona, Nomcebo Mokoena, Nontuthuko Mthembu, Chuma Ntsenge, Jayde Panayitou, Shafieka Petersen, Nikola Pienaar, Annalene Pillay, Vuyi Poni, Thapelo Ramorotong, Susan Rohde, Unathi Sabsana, Priska Schalk, Nicolene Schreuder, Zestah September, Nadia Sheik, Reeva Steenkamp and Nokuthula Thashe.

The biggest threat to women in South Africa is their partners

An investigation of why one woman is murdered every eight hours by her husband or boyfriend in this African country — and how advocates are trying to stop it.

By Kristy Woudstra

"Maybe she’s just skipping work,” Tracy* frantically thought as she drove to her friend and co-worker Vuyi Poni’s house on the morning of Jan. 2, 2017. “Maybe she’s still at that massive party or wherever she went [for New Year’s].” Her head spinning, Tracy had jumped into her car after getting a call from another colleague asking if she knew about Poni. “What about her?” Tracy demanded. “Someone just called,” he replied. “They say she’s dead.”

As Tracy neared Poni’s neighbourhood in Cape Town, South Africa, she clung to the hope that her kind and compassionate friend was still alive. She had seen Poni only a couple of days before at the hospital café where the two worked. Poni was beaming. She had just returned from a vacation in Eastern Cape, where she visited family. “I had the most amazing time,” the 30-year-old mom of three told Tracy. “My life — everything is falling into place.”

Tracy was overjoyed to see her friend so happy. A few months before, Poni’s life was in turmoil. She had been living with her husband, Mzuvukile Poni, and their daughters in Johannesburg, about 1,400 kilometres northeast of Cape Town. But the couple struggled to find work, and then Poni discovered her husband had a child with another woman. Fed up, Poni moved back to Cape Town to raise her daughters in the city where she owned a home and had the support of friends like Tracy. Soon after returning, Poni decided her marriage was over. She wanted a divorce.

Mzuvukile, 37, didn’t take the news well. One night, Poni messaged Tracy in fear because he had shattered the windows of her house with rocks. Then he came to her work, shouting obscenities and threatening to kill her. After Poni locked herself in an office, security escorted Mzuvukile out of the building. “Why did you send security to your husband?” one staff member recalls him shouting. “Vuyi, why are you doing this to me?” The next day, Poni applied for a protection order. At her hearing date, the judge told her to go home and try to work things out with her husband.

Vuyi Poni in late 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy*
Vuyi Poni in late 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Tracy*

Tracy wasn’t thinking about those events when she parked her car near Poni’s home. Instead, she asked a group of onlookers where Poni was. “There,” said a woman, pointing to a neighbour’s house. Tracy walked over, and an ambulance attendant brought her inside. The grisly scene at the top of the stairs haunts Tracy to this day.

According to news reports, Poni’s body was lying on a bed. She had been stabbed dozens of times, and blood covered the walls. Both a knife and scissors were found at the scene. Poni’s husband was arrested and, at his bail hearing, he admitted he stabbed her.

“I’ve been on doctor’s medication [to sleep] because it was horrible,” says Tracy, tears sliding down her cheeks. “No one should die like that. No one.”

Far too many women die at the hands of their partners in South Africa. One woman every eight hours, in fact, which is significantly more than the global average. By comparison, Canada’s “intimate femicide” rate is once every six days. The comparison is even more startling on a per capita basis. In South Africa, the intimate femicide rate was 5.6 per 100,000 in 2009 — 29 times higher than Canada’s 2016 rate of 0.19 per 100,000. Despite nearly 20 years of government legislation and awareness campaigns to reduce domestic violence, South African women are still more likely to be murdered by a current or former partner than by anyone else. “It’s a complex problem that requires complex solutions,” says Lisa Vetten, a South African researcher who is considered a leading expert on intimate femicide.

Just determining the number of intimate femicide cases in South Africa is complicated. Police don’t record this data because intimate partner violence hasn’t been legally defined. Instead, domestic violence is recorded under a range of other categories including assault, malicious damage to property, pointing a firearm and murder. Back in 2004, six researchers published a study using data and autopsy reports from a sample of the country’s mortuaries. They identified murder cases from 1999 involving women as young as teenagers and then read police dockets or interviewed investigating officers to confirm the cause of death and the victim’s relationship with her killer.

“The idea of trying to understand intimate femicide really came from women’s stories in the communities,” says Shanaaz Mathews, one of the study’s authors, who started her career as a social worker back in the 1980s. “We had no idea what the numbers were.”

The study defined intimate femicide as “the killing of a female person by an intimate partner,” which could include her current or former husband, boyfriend or same-sex partner, or a rejected would-be lover. It is the most extreme outcome of intimate partner violence. Their research estimated that 1,349 women (half of all the female homicides in 1999) were killed by their partners that year. The incidents occurred across all age and race groups; however, the majority of victims were under the age of 45 and women of colour.

Dr. Shanaaz Mathews Photo: Courtesy of Sonke Gender Justice
Dr. Shanaaz Mathews Photo: Courtesy of Sonke Gender Justice

Mathews and fellow researchers repeated the study for murders committed 10 years later and found intimate femicide cases had decreased by 24 percent, which was consistent with the country’s overall drop in murder cases. However, women killed by their partners represented 56 percent of female homicides in 2009, making “intimate partner violence . . . the leading cause of death of women homicide victims.” The authors also believed the number was likely an underestimate since police hadn’t identified the perpetrator in more than 20 percent of female murders.

“Our findings show no evidence of the impact of interventions or national efforts to prevent gender-based violence,” the second study concluded. “If these had been effective we would have expected a larger reduction in intimate femicide than in non-intimate femicide.”

One of the country’s most progressive efforts was the 1998 Domestic Violence Act, which recognizes wide-ranging forms of abuse, including physical, psychological, sexual, emotional, economic and verbal. Under the act, anyone experiencing abusive behaviour can ask the court for a protection order (similar to a restraining order in Canada). But subsequent studies have shown abused women, like Poni, often face barriers to getting one. For example, applications for orders are only available in two of the country’s 11 official languages. A victim whose first language isn’t English or Afrikaans may describe her situation using words like “we fight” instead of “he beats me” — and have her request denied.

“The big problem is that in South Africa we have a very high level of violence overall,” comments Mathews on why the country has so many intimate femicide cases. She’s sitting in her large, bright office at the University of Cape Town, where she now studies child abuse. “We also have social norms and gender norms that allow men to think that they have control over women. . . . Men’s entitlement over women is so entrenched.”

‘We have social norms and gender norms that allow men to think they have control over women. Men’s entitlement over women is so entrenched.’

Mathews wanted to further investigate the issue, so she extensively interviewed 20 men convicted of murdering their partners. “Numbers can tell you one thing, but it’s the stories and the qualitative work that provides you with the deeper understanding,” she says. “I spent nearly two years of my life going to prison every week. I only [did one interview each visit] because they were really intense.”

Mathews would start the interviews by asking the men about their childhoods. Many shared stories of abuse and neglect. Some got involved in gang and criminal activity at a young age in an attempt to find identity and belonging. If their dad was around, he tended to be a strict, vicious disciplinarian. These experiences fed the eventual murderers’ issues with control, trust and self-esteem. “That distrust then moves into their own interpersonal relationships with their partners,” explains Mathews.

The men chose romantic partners who were young and naive. They put them on a pedestal as the “ideal woman.” According to Mathews, they didn’t understand that a person can be good and still have flaws. As they got to know their wives or girlfriends, saw their faults and felt disrespected, they would then label their partners as “bad,” which, in their minds, allowed them to be violent and to kill. This is one reason women are most at risk if they decide to leave a relationship.

“In their narratives, there’s a great sense of betrayal by these women: ‘She failed me,’” says Mathews. “None of them take actual ownership of what they did.”

In a 2014 paper outlining her findings, Mathews and fellow researchers also described how South Africa’s “present day violence is deeply rooted in its apartheid and colonial past.” From 1948 to 1991, the government brutally enforced institutionalized segregation along racial lines. Under these laws, oppression and poverty flourished across the country. The system also supported the dominant role of men over women — and other men. The end result was a hotbed of toxic masculinity.

Women demonstrate outside a 2016 sentencing hearing for Oscar Pistorius, convicted of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Photo: Getty Images

Dubravka Šimonović, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on violence against women, echoed these sentiments about apartheid’s legacy in a 2016 report. “At the core of this violence against women pandemic lie unequal power gender relations, patriarchy, homophobia, sexism and other harmful discriminatory beliefs and practices,” the report states. “Additional triggers . . . include widespread use of drugs and alcohol, high unemployment rate and the continuing stereotypical portrayal of women in the media. Compounding the problem is the high incidence of HIV.”

One well-known advocate who spoke out against the abuse of women in South Africa was model Reeva Steenkamp. The 29-year-old was shot and killed by her boyfriend of four months, Oscar Pistorius, on Valentine’s Day 2013. He is currently serving a prison sentence of 13 years and five months. The trial attracted media attention from around the world, partly because of Pistorius’s fame as a former Olympian and Paralympian. Now Steenkamp’s legacy of supporting domestic violence victims is taking the spotlight through the Reeva Rebecca Steenkamp Foundation.

Reeva Steenkamp in 2012. On Valentine’s Day 2013, she was shot to death by Oscar Pistorius. Photo: Getty Images
Reeva Steenkamp in 2012. On Valentine’s Day 2013, she was shot to death by Oscar Pistorius. Photo: Getty Images

“Some people believe the ones who leave us early were able to impart what they needed to in their time. That helps me,” says Kim Martin, Steenkamp’s cousin and the foundation’s CEO. She’s drinking coffee at an outdoor café in Cape Town, surrounded by a breathtaking view of Table Mountain and the ocean — a stark contrast to the topic of intimate femicide. “Reeva did so much. She left behind such a powerful message.”

The day Steenkamp died, she was supposed to deliver a speech to a high school in Johannesburg. “Being loved by others, although an amazing feeling . . . does not define you [or] your place in the world,” wrote Steenkamp. “Be brave, and always be positive. Make your voice heard. . . . It’s that culmination of your person that will leave a legacy and uplift.”

Inspired by these directives, the foundation joined a campaign in August 2017 to raise awareness about the country’s Firearms Control Act, which allows women to ask police to remove guns from their homes if they feel threatened. Under the Domestic Violence Act, courts can also seize weapons when a woman obtains a protection order against her abuser.

Martin, who is herself a survivor of domestic violence, says she wishes she’d known about this legislation. “My ex had a gun, and he threatened me with it on numerous occasions. So I think a lot of women are frightened. . . . Just knowing the gun isn’t in the house will make a big difference.”

The foundation also directly assists survivors of abuse. South Africa’s Civilian Secretariat for Police revealed that only 1.4 percent of police stations are fully compliant with the Domestic Violence Act, which includes providing victim-friendly rooms for interviews. Seeing a need, the Steenkamp foundation connects women with services such as shelters and counselling through volunteers and information packages. “The police don’t have in-depth domestic violence training,” says Martin. “When someone comes to the police station, they need to be handled correctly. Sometimes the uneducated responses are more damaging than the abuse that they receive from the perpetrator.”

More than anything, Martin and her team want to educate people about the psychological impact of intimate partner abuse and address the shame and guilt that prevent many women from even admitting they’re being mistreated. This was the idea behind the foundation’s recent #BluePurpleBlack campaign, suggesting people wear clothing in those colours to symbolize emotional and physical bruises. “We want to get rid of that shame of abuse,” explains Martin. “We want it to become something that’s talked about more, that women don’t feel the need to hide it and they feel that they can look for help.”

Shockingly, 56 percent of men in Diepsloot admitted to raping or beating a woman in the past 12 months.

Community-based organizations are also finding unique ways to address the intricacies of intimate femicide. Lawyers Against Abuse (LvA), for example, is a small non-profit that provides both legal help and therapy to hundreds of clients dealing with abuse. It operates out of a small trailer parked on the outskirts of Johannesburg in a township called Diepsloot, which is Afrikaans for “deep ditch.”

In the days of apartheid, townships were reserved for people of colour, and the population here is still predominantly black. People don’t remain in Diepsloot long, though. They arrive from rural areas of South Africa or migrate from countries like Zimbabwe and often only stay until they find jobs and better housing in the city. As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many people live here. Estimates range from 140,000 to half a million.

“There were no legal services. There were no psychosocial services that were specific to gender-based violence,” says Lindsay Henson, LvA’s executive director, on why the organization decided in 2014 to work in Diepsloot. Statistics also indicate a great need. Shockingly, 56 percent of men in the township admitted in a 2016 study to raping or beating a woman in the previous 12 months. However, few survivors go to the police because of financial dependence on their abusers, distrust of authorities or lack of awareness of their legal rights. Some simply can’t afford the taxi fare to get to the police station.

“When we talk about our work — gender-based violence, domestic violence, intimate partner violence — it’s the norm, not the exception here,” says Henson. “Our clients’ . . . lives are punctuated by acts of violence.” Henson and her team work hard to earn the trust of the community. She says victims of domestic abuse typically don’t seek LvA’s help until “the violence has escalated to the point where they can’t take it anymore, and they feel their life is in jeopardy or the perpetrator has turned violent toward their children.”

Lindsay Henson, executive director of Lawyers Against Abuse in Diepsloot. Photo: Courtesy of Lawyers Against Abuse
Lindsay Henson, executive director of Lawyers Against Abuse in Diepsloot. Photo: Courtesy of Lawyers Against Abuse

However, it often takes clients a few visits before they are ready to file for a protection order. Many women don’t want to leave their relationships, explains Henson — they just want the abuse to stop. And if their partners find out they’re seeking help, the violence and threats can escalate, making them too afraid to file the order.

The LvA team believes in letting the victims decide on next steps, rather than trying to force them to make a decision. “We understand the cycle of violence, and it’s really important to us to make sure people know they can come back,” says Henson. “It’s through the therapeutic process that they’re learning what’s going on is not okay and what happened isn’t [their] fault.”

Despite the overwhelming challenges, Henson has already seen success in the past few years, including changing attitudes about domestic violence among the women of Diepsloot. “Earlier today, I met with a client who took one of our workshops and had been in an abusive relationship for two years,” she says. “She hadn’t been aware of what her rights were or where she could get help. She was able to leave the relationship and move out. Now he’s threatening her, so she came back to us and she wants a protection order. It’s stories like that which are so inspiring. Those are powerful.”

The Lady in White, representing all women victimized by men in South Africa, leads a march against gender-based violence last May in Pretoria. Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela

Another glimmer of hope came in the form of a protest last spring. About 500 people — mostly men — gathered in the city of Pretoria to stand against the violence experienced by an overwhelming number of women and children. “The time to take collective responsibility for our shameful action is now,” Kholofelo Masha, one of the organizers, told reporters. “You hear a lady screaming next door, you decide to sleep when you know there is a problem. No man should beat a woman or rape a woman while you’re watching.”

Vuyi Poni has been gone for more than a year now, but Tracy refuses to let her memory fade away. She especially doesn’t want Poni’s death to be the only picture in her mind. So she still messages her friend, not because she thinks the messages will reach her but because it helps her feel connected to Poni. She also saved Poni’s voice messages so Poni’s daughters will remember their mom’s voice.

Poni’s husband was denied bail and is in jail as he awaits his trial. Tracy hopes Mzuvukile is found guilty of her friend’s murder and is handed the maximum sentence, but she knows that wouldn’t bring resolution for Vuyi Poni’s family and friends — and definitely not for her. “Never. The way [she died]? There’s no closure,” says Tracy emphatically. “There’s no bringing her back.”

*Name changed to protect identity.

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