SA has highest rate of intimate femicide

27 September 2004

There has been a decline in the incidence of most violent crimes during the 2003/04 financial year according to a South African Police Services report released last week. But buried in the country's crime statistics are other alarming figures. According to a recent Medical Research Council report, South Africa has the highest rate of intimate femicide (women killed by their intimate partners) that has ever been reported in research anywhere in the world.

UCT's Professor Lorna Martin, new head of forensic medicine and toxicology, is one of six researchers who took part in the national MRC female homicide study*, which reveals that one woman is murdered in South Africa every six hours by someone she loves, someone with whom she has an intimate relationship; a husband, a common law husband, a lover or boyfriend.

The study was retrospective, with data collected on female homicides of women aged 14 and above in South Africa in 1999. According to the report, 8.8 per 100 000 women 14 years and older were killed by an intimate partner in South Africa in 1999.

"We estimate that 1 349 women were murdered by an intimate partner nationally that year," Martin said.

This means that four women each day are killed by known perpetrators. This group makes up half of the women murdered in this country and is the highest rate that has ever been reported in research anywhere in the world, says the report.

Data for 1999 were collected between March 2002 and December 2003 from sampled mortuaries, establishing a sample group of 905 female homicide cases with complete data. The research group's analysis was based on the cases where the perpetrator was established.

Little is known about who kills South African women and under which circumstances, but international studies show that intimate femicide is linked to a history of domestic violence, with the risk increasing at the threat of separation or actual separation.

"Given the high levels of gender-based violence and excessive rates of homicide in South Africa, it is critical for us to establish the size of the problem and the pattern of intimate femicide in South Africa," Martin added.

Information on the occupations of perpetrators shows that they are more likely to be blue collar workers, farm workers and security workers. Statistics in the report also show that the victims of intimate femicide are mostly black women (76.4%), followed by coloured women (17.7%), white women (3.9%) and Indian women (2%).

In a comparison between non-intimate femicides and intimate femicides the study found that women killed by their intimate partners were more likely to be: younger; killed at home; work as domestic workers; killed by a legal firearm, killed by blunt force, and killed by perpetrators with alcohol problems.

The researchers also compiled telling statistics on sentencing disparities between the two groups, non-intimate femicides and intimate femicides. They found a significant difference in the average sentence handed down for perpetrators of intimate femicide (10.7 years) and non-intimate femicide (12.4 years).

Their medico-legal findings revealed that 2% of all female murder victims were pregnant and that in 15.3% of the cases, the women had been sexually assaulted. Samples were sent for DNA analysis in only 3.5% of the intimate femicide cases. In 21.2% of the cases that showed evidence of sexual assault, a genital swab was not taken.

"Our overall assessment of the quality of post mortem reports found that 39% were below adequate," Martin noted. "The quality of post mortems was particularly unsatisfactory at the smaller mortuaries where 67.6% of the reports were found to be below adequate."

The researchers also found several flaws in the medical and legal management of female murder cases and recommend that:

  • a public crime database be established;
  • investigating officers be trained to handle female murders;
  • guidelines be developed between the police, prosecutors and pathologists for the integrated management of cases;
  • police and prosecutors monitor homicide dockets after they come into police stations to ensure investigations are thorough and timeous;
  • laws of evidence be reformed to allow a previous history of domestic violence to be introduced in court to establish that the homicide is the culmination of a pattern of violence towards the victim;
  • DNA specimens are collected and used more often in evidence
  • The Department of Health improve post mortem services, especially in the rural areas. The study also said the time was ripe for a new Firearms Control Act, better control of guns, as well as a need for dedicated intervention among young people around the abuse of alcohol, which plays a role in femicide.

"Homicide is the most serious of all crimes in our crime-ridden society and intimate femicide is the most serious form and consequence of domestic violence and gender inequality. It needs to be understood that it is not primarily a matter of death but one of the quality and value placed on women's lives," the report concludes.

(* MRC Policy Brief No 5, June 2004)

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