The tallies have been rising on women murdered on the streets of South Africa. From a country with a history of violence and suppression, the fight is nowhere finished. Multiday protests throughout major cities have brought the crisis to international attention.
The brutal murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a University of Cape Town student who was raped and killed while at the post office is unfortunately not a standalone incident. Mrwetyana joined upwards of 30 women that had been murdered in August alone. This marks the highest rates gender-based violence the country has seen, in a month that is, ironically, also designated as the national awareness month for Women’s Rights.
There are many reasons thought to be behind the high numbers. Culturally, it comes from a history of women being viewed as inferior and the belief that women must obey their husbands. In many parts of South Africa, there is a general acceptance of rape, including martial rape and gang rape, as not being seen as wrong. This has led to South Africa having the highest rate of domestic abuse in the world. Domestic abuse was only outlawed in 1998 and martial rape in 1993. A studied done by the South Africa Medical Research Council found that 50% of men have abused their partners. Most relevant to the recent murders, every six hours a partner kills their female counterpart and one in four men in South Africa have raped someone.
Studies have also found that there are certain traits in men and women that can lead to a greater risk of abuse in the country. Men who have grown up with violence, without father figures, and who use alcohol are more likely to abuse. It is also tied to race and socioeconomic status, as women of color, who are unemployed, and/or are from rural communities are more likely to be victims. Psychological studies have found that domestic abuse is often used as a response to feeling powerless. Apartheid proved violence is successful as a means for control and left people with a lack of trust in the government. Men who feel helpless regress to using violence against their partners in an attempt to regain a sense of control and self-worth. They also have a lack of fear of being prosecuted due to flaws in the police system – which is legitimate when only 15% of perpetrators are convicted.
The exceptionally high rates of HIV in South Africa pose an additional danger to rapes. The belief in a virgin cleansing myth, if you rape a virgin you will be cured of HIV, has led to high rates of abuse in children, with 50% of children being abused before they turn 18. Rates of sexual abuse have also been found to be exceptionally high in schools and often deters girls from pursuing education. Additionally, South Africa has increased rates of violence surrounding homophobia, with rates of “corrective rape” reaching 10 a week just in Cape Town. This mirrors statistics for gay black men.
President Ramaphosa said that measures have to be taken now to address the femicide. He has proposed longer sentencing and introducing more sexual offence courts. With current rates of rape reporting lingering at 2%, there is a chance that this will cause little change. The women marching firmly believe that change is necessary, but will it be enough?
DEVIN O’DONNELL’s interest in travel was cemented by a multi-month trip to East Africa when she was 19. Since then, she has continued to have immersive experiences on multiple continents. Devin has written for a start-up news site and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Neuroscience.