My friend Camilla says each day of her life is lived in fear — fear that one day she could be next. Her husband of three years is verbally and physically abusive. She says that just a few days ago, he lit a cigarette in the car and, during a fairly normal conversation, he burned her on her thigh, completely out of the blue. She was driving and nearly drove into oncoming traffic. Naturally horrified by her account, I say nothing. She takes a deep sigh and says: “That man is going to kill me for absolutely no reason.”
Like Camilla, I realised that far too many women face the possibility of femicide. Some stories — such as the tragedy of Karabo Mokoena, who was burned beyond recognition, allegedly by her boyfriend — are told, but far too many remain untold. The violence against women and children is being further battered by a justice system that is sleeping.
Our laws are not ready for the conundrums of feminised poverty. There is no doubt that the escalating violence is the result of poverty and that women are at the receiving end of that barbed stick.
Women are custodians of all the ills in society, and femicide being treated with laxity and impunity is a direct effect of this. The danger of femicide is treated like a storm in a teacup. Or is it just our culture to treat women and children with absolute brutality?
I couldn’t help but wonder after seeing a woman being shot at point-blank range by a police officer on the news. This woman was carrying a child. I wondered: even if she had provoked the officer as he contended, was punching a hole in her arm with a rifle the only solution? This must be considered in the context that the officer was armed and flanked by many colleagues. Was the brutality warranted? She and her child could have been killed.
And how is a father raping and impregnating his daughter any different? Should such a man not be apprehended timeously, the tragedy could have a different outcome, possibly even femicide. What about the number of lesbians killed because of their preferred orientation? The number of killings seems to be rising.
Simply put, as a country we face different evils. Our troubles have been met with calls to criminalise racism and business cartels and to decriminalise sex work. These calls are made by the government, civil society and citizens.
We should enact legislation that focuses on femicide, which is unlike other murders or homocide and considering the overwhelming statistics of brutality against women and children. For these reasons it must be prosecuted and investigated in a particular way.
Sexual assault legislation was introduced because legislators believed that “sexual offence in the republic is of grave concern”, according to the preamble of the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act.
The preamble further accepts that legislation is warranted because “the legal mechanisms to address this social phenomenon are limited”, including that our common law fails to deal with sexual offences “adequately, effectively and in a nondiscriminatory manner”, and this can lead to secondary trauma and victimisation.
Notwithstanding the need to enact legislation that protects against crimes of a sexual nature, the law regarding sexual assault keeps developing with time. Recently, the high court ruled that cases of sexual assault dating back more than 20 years could still be prosecuted because it is in the interests of justice.
The law has to develop to accommodate factors that are likely to change over time and may expose victims to further injustices. This is necessary to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
To that end, defining the crime of femicide warrants close attention to detail because the causes are concentrated and structural. Brazil’s penal code defines femicide as a crime “that involves domestic violence, discrimination or contempt for women, which results in their death”.
Furthermore, according to criminologist Anni Hesselink, “research proves that the chances of a woman being murdered by someone that she knows or is in an intimate relationship with are much higher than any other type of murder … Motives are often financial, adultery or a love triangle, custody or a residential battle for children.”
We must pay more attention to investigating and prosecuting such crimes. Statistics indicate that cases of violence against women are increasing.
Every eight hours, a woman is killed by an intimate partner. That should be of grave concern.
Palesa Lebitse is a writer, feminist and law student with an interest in human rights