The Oscar Pistorius trial provides the opportunity to highlight the issue of intimate partner violence. It again highlights the need for greater public awareness of this issue, its prevalence and how it takes place.
Setting out his defence at the trial on Monday, 3 Mar 2014, Pistorius argued that he was in a loving relationship with Reeva Steenkamp. If his defence team understood anything about intimate partner violence (IPV), it would have realised that, on its own, a loving relationship provides no clue one way or another. His legal team would have known that most instances of domestic violence occurred in the context of intimacy, love and closeness.
Most people are familiar with terms like violence against women and girls (VAWG) and domestic violence. These terms have relevance – both gender organisations and international media reports have drawn attention to the fact that this case takes place against a backdrop of high levels of gender violence South Africa. The beauty about the lesser known IPV is that it zooms in to violence within the love relationship.
IPV is rooted in macho culture. According to Soul City’s Sue Goldstein, this culture includes the sense, on the part of men, that they “own” the woman in their lives.
In my own social circles, I know a few women who have been beaten up by someone who in every sense was their nearest and dearest. The violent attack came as they shared a home – and, indeed, the love relationship continued on both sides of the rage, the anger and the bruises.
Society’s anger against itself often expressed itself as violence against women. This violence does not just manifest in the alleys or the streets or public places; it lives in the home. This location of crime (in the form of attacks on women) in the home usually confounds those with moral and legal authority and interferes with their duty to protect women. Religious leaders, the police and others in the justice system would like to maintain the fantasy of the home and intimate relationships as a refuge against badness and harm.
Thus, within a patriarchal society – and as gender justice organisations point out – IPV creates many challenges for the criminal justice system. When faced with this kind of unjust action, many otherwise good policemen seem unable to do their work. Often, for such officials, their lack of knowledge of IPV goes together with a lack of will and motivation to act against the man. That is because they too are often infected by the idea that it is a man’s right to control and discipline “his” women.
Ours is also not just an ordinary patriarchal society. It has endured dislocation, instability, racial conflict and deep levels of alienation. On all sides and affecting people from any and every level of society, there is dehumanisation.
Where does this anger and madness go? How does it manifest? We don’t have all the answers to such questions, but it is true that much of this anger is expressed in our society as violence against women. In out patriarchal society, the national trauma manifests as attacks on women, in turn causing new cycles of trauma and social dysfunction.
Let’s take a look at some IPV statistics. Researcher Lisa Vetten found, in 1995, that “every 6 days, a woman in Gauteng would be killed by her intimate male partner”. Vetten was also involved in a 1999 study – by the Medical Research Council and two other bodies – which found that approximately half of all women died at the hands of their intimate partners. Ten years later a third study showed a decline in the killing of women. But alas, the main decline was in killings by strangers, friends and acquaintances; by comparison, there was only a negligible drop in the rate of killing by lovers, partners and husbands remained constant. This means, as Vetten said recently: “The most common way women are killed is by the hands of an intimate male partner.”
The Pistorius story again throws the spotlight on South Africa’s gun culture. Gun Free South Africa has long called on South Africans to give up their love of guns. It has pointed out that guns are four times more likely to be used against the gun-owners themselves than in successful self-defence. There is also evidence that shows how guns in the home play a role in teen suicides. And from a gender justice perspective, when easy availability of guns mixes with a macho culture, it heightens the dangers faced by women.
In the middle of the voyeurism, the media frenzy and the highly-publicised legal sparring, we should remember that, on the fateful night, a woman died needlessly. We should remember that guns in the home often end up shedding the blood of those they are meant to protect. We should grasp the truth about intimate femicide in South Africa.
Even if Pistorius’s version of what happened on Valentine’s Day 2013 triumphs and the lesson related to IPV is ultimately lessened, the urgent and cautionary lesson about our obsession with guns will remain.
(This article first appeared in The New Age newspaper on 7 March 2014)