SOUTH AFRICA: Gender inequality turns fatal

Monday, November 19, 2007

She was a mother, a nurse, a wife and she had had enough, but days after laying charges of abuse against her husband, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, Roseline Mathole, 49, was missing. A week later, she was dead.

Mathole's husband was arrested for her murder late last week and within hours was dead in police cells by his own hand. According to South African police spokesperson Captain William Mcera, the hunt for his accomplice continues as Mathole's children prepare to bury her.

"I knew they'd started having problems," said Mathole's daughter, Lawley. "He'd started beating her, really beating her. He always said he would kill her but I didn't think he'd go through with it. I didn't think it would get to this extreme."

Every day, four South African women meet Mathole's fate, dying at the hands of their partners, according to Lisa Vetten, who works for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, a gender-based violence advocacy and research facility that provides legal resources to survivors.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world, South Africa's police service reported in 2006 that in about 20 percent of all murders the victims were related to perpetrators, and many of these crimes took place in the home, which was normally outside the reach of conventional policing.

Have police failed them?

The NISAA Instiute for Women's Development, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation focused on the abuse of women and children, says 'yes', and is about to take to the streets to protest. Organisation members will be marching outside a local magistrate's court on 20 November because they claim that most law enforcement officials stand by while women are raped, beaten and murdered by their partners.

According to NISAA counsellor Nonhlanhla Mashile - herself a survivor of domestic abuse - police fail to act on many complaints that protection orders are being violated. "The police start acting like social workers, they want to sit down and talk instead of arresting the man or seizing his weapon," she said. "If they do take the weapons, our clients are also not made aware when the weapon is returned."

However, Mashile and NISAA have been able to form strong partnerships with local police contingents in some of the areas where they work, such as Orange Farm, outside Johannesburg, one of South Africa's most populous informal settlements. NISAA clients are sometimes escorted to court to obtain protection orders by Orange Farm police, which was not usually allowed, Mashile said.

This not only helped the area's poor women but also expedited court proceedings. "Transport is a problem and sometimes a woman wants to apply for a protection order but doesn't have the money to get to court. I make the means available," said Orange Farm Police Constable Zodwa Mbele, who added that the station sees approximately 20 women a week as a result of domestic violence cases.

Law enforcement's failure

But not all stations are like Orange Farm. Vetten agreed that law enforcement officials often failed in their duty to protect women. "Sometimes the criminal justice system does fail these women by reacting tardily, not arresting partners or granting bail."

According to her, the law should go one step further than merely alerting survivors that guns have been returned, as Mashile suggests; it should also rethink whether people proven to be suicidal or violent should be allowed to own guns at all, since most guns used in deaths like Mathole's are licensed.

Other legal roadblocks to protecting those abused by partners include the usual inadmissibility of broken protection orders as evidence in related murder cases, as well as the hazy definition of what exactly constitutes "imminent danger" to the holder of a protection order, which is the legal test as to whether those breaking protection orders can be arrested, Vetten said.

The community could also play a role. If couples have separated, citing abuse, families should not encourage contact or feelings of anger and resentment that may escalate to violence.

"If your brother or father is exhibiting this behaviour, encourage them to get help, and discourage them from seeing their partner as a horrible person who has treated them badly," Vetten suggested. "You need to be careful about what you may unwittingly be encouraging."

In Mashile's case, support came not from family but from service providers such as her doctor and NISAA. "I was referred to NISAA by a doctor who used to treat me every time my husband would beat me," she said. "I would go to him and lie; I even told him what to write on the sick notes to my boss."

Information needed

Mashile withheld disclosing her abuse to him for years, she said, based on a past experience of telling a doctor. "We knew each other, we used to say 'hi' in the street," she said. "I thought he'd understand, but when I told him, he just froze. His face changed - it was like he was staring at a maniac. I never disclosed to anyone until I had no option."

She finally left her partner and went to a NISAA shelter in 1997. "I reported to him that I was going to see my mother," she said. "When I got on that taxi I knew I wasn't going back."

But as South African women continue to die in abusive situations, Mashile said the degree of women's information and support, and not necessarily the level of violence, would decide when these women would walk out.

"With all the support and information, [it] is still not easy to take action," noted the NISAA counsellor. "It's all about a point of readiness. The point of readiness is different for everybody, and sometimes happens when you least expect it."

Source: IRIN
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