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Oscar Pistorius arrest for model murder part of South Africa's grim pattern

Crime scene
Police crime scene tape marks off the home of South African "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius in Pretoria Feb. 14. (Andrea Ettwein/Reuters)

They were a glittering, celebrated couple. Now they are among South Africa’s grim homicide statistics in a country where one woman is killed by her partner every eight hours.

Oscar Pistorius – Paralympian gold medal winner and double amputee – was arrested Thursday for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, an elegant blonde model described on social media as “an angel on earth.”

So far he has yet to be tried, let alone found guilty. But glamour aside, the bloody event fits all too neatly into South Africa’s pattern of violence against women. Known as the “rape capital of the world,” it is also the leading country for domestic murder of women, a statistic that has not fallen in line with the country’s declining overall homicide rate during the past decade.

“South Africa has a globally unprecedented problem of violence against women and girls,” says the Pretoria-based Medical Research Council, adding that it is “undermining our nation’s health and economic and social development.”  It doesn’t help that President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of the rape of the daughter of a family friend in 2005 – after pleading that her wraparound skirt was a signal that she was inviting sex.

The Medical Council also found in a 2004 study that 28 per cent of men who were surveyed admitted to rape, and that most of them commit their first rape during their teens.

Why such high levels of violence against women?

In the case of Pistorius – if he is found guilty --  it’s unlikely to be the poverty and social inequality the Medical Council says is a leading driver. But it adds, “South Africa’s men across the racial spectrum are raised to see themselves as superior to women and taught that men should be tough, brave, strong and respected. Heavy drinking, carrying weapons and a readiness to defend honour with a fight are often seen as markers.

“With most men perceiving that women should submit to control by men, physical and sexual violence are used against women to demonstrate male power, and thus teach women ‘their place’ and enforce it through pushishment. Thus gender equality legitimates male violence over women, as well as being accentuated by the use of such violence.”

Not so different, then, from the rationale for violence against women in so many other countries. But the difference is of frequency, and degree.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.






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