Two women hugs each-other as they part in a protest against the abuse of women. Picture: GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP
Two women hugs each-other as they part in a protest against the abuse of women. Picture: GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP

Uyinene Mrwetyana went to the post office to collect a parcel. Natasha Conabeer left home to visit family. Jesse Hess was at home with her grandfather. Leighandre Jegels was on her way to her boxing gym. All were murdered in the past three weeks.

As this article was being prepared for publication, news came in that the so-called Dros rapist, Nicholas Ninow, had admitted to the rape of a seven-year-old girl. Then a grim statistic dropped: a poll by Ipsos shows that one in 10 South Africans believe men have the right to physically attack their partners.

It boggles the mind.

If Mrwetyana was not safe visiting a post office, and a young girl was not safe going for lunch with her mother at a busy Dros restaurant in Pretoria, are there any "safe spaces" left for women? Is this why the hashtag #AmINext is so chilling?

Wits University gender researcher Lisa Vetten doesn’t believe the latest wave of attacks signals a new cycle of femicide and gender-based violence.

Instead, she says it is public reaction that comes in cycles. The question is, who wins our empathy, and who does not? She calls this "inequality of attention".

We’re more likely, she says, to identify with a victim with a social media profile — a presence on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter — or someone whose pictures make the lead story on national TV, smiling and happy and filled with potential that will never be fully realised.

These are the pictures we’re more likely to share, and, if the victims died young, we’re more incensed because the youth symbolise the future.

At the same time, we’re less likely to feel the same outrage and sadness over an unemployed, middle-aged black woman living in a shack who has no social media profile to speak of.

Elizabeth Koue, for example, was stabbed to death in 2016. Her body, with 19 stab wounds, was found in the shack of her boyfriend, Johnson Mashigo — against whom she had several protection orders.

In February, Mashigo was acquitted of Koue’s murder. Her family have slammed the National Prosecuting Authority and demanded the ruling be appealed.

But there was little outrage around Koue’s death. No hashtags, protests or all-night vigils. No "My body is not a crime scene" rallying cry.

This is not to suggest such actions don’t serve a purpose. For example, Vetten says the public outcry around the deaths of Anene Booysen, gang-raped and disembowelled after leaving a pub in Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, and model Reeva Steenkamp, shot dead by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, raised awareness about what is happening to women in SA.

And it is an outrage: a report by the World Health Organisation shows just how bleak the situation in SA has become.

Only three countries have a worse femicide rate than SA: Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho. According to those figures, SA has a femicide rate of 12.5 killed for every 100,000 women.

In the wake of the recent murders, justice & correctional services minister Ronald Lamola announced that 92 sexual offences courts will be reopened and 11 more are expected to be operational in the current financial year.

The ANC’s parliamentary caucus has declared gender-based violence a national disaster and announced that the national registry for sexual offenders will be made public. And there have been calls from some sectors, once again, for a referendum on the death penalty.

But Vetten and Mbuyiselo Botha, a Sonke Gender Justice activist and commissioner on the Gender Equality Commission, agree that there isn’t a single, "magic bullet" solution.

"TV ads don’t work; neither do campaigns or posters. Rather it’s different things that look small but all together have a larger effect," says Vetten.

By way of example, she refers to finding ways to help women who suffer injuries but don’t get medical help in time.

In the Eastern Cape, for instance, Vetten says a community that lives 90km from the nearest town can be taught how to stop someone from bleeding or to treat someone in shock to reduce the death rate.

But harsh sentences are symbolic — they’re no deterrent. "That’s just wishful thinking," she says.

In 2012, the Medical Research Council looked at two SA studies that described the prevalence and patterns of female homicide and intimate femicide in 1999 and 2009.

Its report notes that 30% of the men who raped adult women had a previous criminal conviction. By contrast, 7% of the men who raped children 17 years and younger had previous convictions. Of all men arrested, 1.5% had been convicted for murder, 4.4% had been convicted for rape or another sexual offence and 13.7% had been convicted for housebreaking, robbery, hijacking or theft.

Men who themselves have been victims of abuse are at an elevated risk of committing violence against women or men, says Vetten.

"It’s important to pay attention to violence that men [and] boys experience. The government should be funding domestic violence programmes run for children who have witnessed fathers beating mothers; it’s an obvious place to intervene. More money can be spent on services that stop the cycle of violence. We shouldn’t be talking about sentencing at all," she says.

Botha agrees that perpetrators of violent acts are not deterred by the law, and campaigns such as Women’s Month are too short-lived and don’t measure effectiveness. More meaningful prevention, according to both Botha and Vetten, lies in education and how children are raised at home.

"On a subliminal level we’ve accepted that it’s OK for someone to be raped because they dressed inappropriately.

"This is a message we sing silently. ‘If Anene Booysen had not been at that shebeen or [had not] had a few drinks, then she would not have been raped’ … There’s a need for a huge, radical shift in how we package or teach gender-based messages," Botha says.

"For decades the message has been that the girl child should not wear short skirts, they’re told not to drink in [particular] places, or walk [around] at night — that’s the narrative. This is not told to the boy child. The burden of safety not to be raped is on the survivor or victim, not on the perpetrator, the man, the boy. It’s important that we say we’re doing this wrong."

Botha says even when a woman is dealing with workplace harassment, the burden of proof lies on her, and the narrative is usually that she has malicious intentions or is a scorned employee.

"We don’t need the death penalty," he says. "We need to ensure the existing laws are properly enforced and there must be consequences for those who don’t implement them. The police still don’t understand the protection order or how to enforce it. Victims are simply told: ‘Tell us when you see him.’"

Perhaps the answer, in part, lies in early intervention: in response to 106 women being murdered in Italy last year, the country’s senate passed the "code red" law. It aims to prevent cases of abuse escalating by requiring both the accuser and the accused to attend a court hearing within three days of a complaint being lodged.

But, as Botha says, the hard work really starts at home. It’s about how people are raised and what values are instilled in the next generation.

"We need people to roll up their sleeves and do prevention work, and for families to ask: ‘How do I raise boys?’"

How, indeed.

"We don’t need the death penalty. We need to ensure the existing laws are properly enforced and there must be consequences for those who don’t implement them" — Mbuyiselo Botha

What it means: Halting violence against women means respect must be inculcated in boys when they are still young

The statistics

In 2017, the Medical Research Council released “Rape Justice in SA: Retrospective Study of the Investigation, Prosecution and Adjudication of Reported Rape Cases From 2012”, based on a nationally representative, randomly selected sample of rape cases opened by the police in 2012.

Of the 3,952 cases included in the study, 94.1% of complainants were female, 46% were under 18 and 4.9% were disabled.

Child victims were more likely to live with their mothers and less likely to live with both parents than children in the general population. Ten percent of adult victims were students.

The accused were mostly male (99%) and adults, but 13.9% were under the age of 18. Sixty-four percent of the perpetrators were known to the victim
and 31% were strangers (this proportion was 40% among adults).

A third of adult perpetrators had previous convictions, 5% of them for rape.

KwaZulu-Natal had the highest number of young victims and perpetrators, Mpumalanga had the highest rate of stranger rapes, the Western Cape had the highest rate of rapes by intimate partners, North West had the highest rate of multiple perpetrator rapes and the Eastern Cape had the highest rate of acquaintance rapes.