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Steencamp Death Sheds Light on Violence Against Women in South Africa

February 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Although there is no current evidence of domestic abuse in the murder case against Oscar Pistorius, the death of Reeva Steencamp has shed light on a national problem in South Africa: the high rate of violence against women. Ray Suarez talks with journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault about this disturbing trend.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: There’s no proof of domestic violence in the Pistorius case, at least not at this point. But the killing of Reeva Steenkamp has focused attention on violence against women in South Africa.

We take a look at that problem with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She was a correspondent here at the NewsHour for many years and then lived in South Africa working as a journalist for more than a decade.

Charlayne, Welcome back.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Journalist: Thank you for having me, Ray.  

RAY SUAREZ: It’s a reminder of just how much jeopardy women and children are in, in South Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It’s a horrendous story.

This is a sad story in so many ways. But what this murder has done is to shed light on the humongous problem of domestic violence, in particular femicide, which is murder of an intimate partner. There are so many cases that happen on a daily bases that don’t even get reported because so many of them that have been reported have just been thrown out of court.

The numbers are astounding. And so people get discouraged. They don’t — they don’t report those cases, because there’s just no real justice for women at this point.

RAY SUAREZ: The World Health Organization says 60,000 women and children are victims of domestic violence every month. A new piece of research from South Africa, by South African scholars, has one out of four men admitting they have committed rape in the past. Has it always been this way?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It’s been this way for a long time. And it goes across the board.

It’s not peculiar or particular to any race or class. This domestic violence is shot through the entire society from the highest of the high in socioeconomic terms to the lowest of the low. You get a lot of attention focused on this one because of who the two parties are. But this goes on every day in a most horrendous way.

And there’s very — a lot of frustration within the community that very little is either done or said, because it’s a culture of violence and there’s a culture of silence. And there’s a culture of misogyny that is shot through the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a lot of people, from the reporting, don’t think it’s a problem in the first place. So I guess it’s hard to make this into a national cause, isn’t it?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it’s interesting that the African National Congress that is the ruling party’s Women’s League has been at the Pistorius case every day, some sitting on the front seat.

And they had signs that said “Your sisters are here to see that justice is carried out.” And they are now demonstrating at the court, not making a judgment on the guilt or innocence of Pistorius. But they say they’re going to stay at the court and monitor it until they can be sure that justice is done. And they criticize. For example, today …

RAY SUAREZ: Now, why is that significant, that the ANC Women’s League would come in on the side of Reeva Steenkamp so heavily?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, because, you know, they are part of the ruling party. They’re part of the governing system in the country.

And it’s interesting that the majority of them are black women. And they have — they have taken up this case. In fact, they were highly critical of a well-established businessman who among — who was among the men who jumped up when the judge pronounced the bail for Pistorius in great excitement and affirmation.

And they said that, you know, this sends the wrong message. And this is what is happening as these cases of domestic violence and femicide continue. And men are approving it in so many ways. It sends the wrong message in a society that is just shot through with these kinds of injustices.

RAY SUAREZ: In the past, activists around women’s issues have been highly critical of the South African president, Jacob Zuma, whether it came through the fight against HIV or the fight against violence against women.

Is he now perceived as being on the side of women who are trying to handle this problem?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, he has been — he has enabled his administration to be aggressive, and they have made great strides in the HIV situation.

And since his trial, his own trial for rape, for which he was acquitted, but which he said that, you know, it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy the woman who indicated she might want to have sex with him, he — the activists say that sends the wrong message.

But now there was a young woman, 19 years old, who was brutally raped and murdered so — and disfigured so badly that her family doesn’t even want the details of the results of her body, what happened to her body to be known, and he has called that a heinous crime, that — those weren’t the exact words he used, but he said, there is no room for this.

And now he’s calling for stiffer sentences. So I think that leadership at the top is extremely important, the words that come out of the mouths of leaders. And the behavior of men in particular is going to be very important if this case is going to have any positive result in the end for justice for women.

RAY SUAREZ: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, great to see you. Thanks for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Ray.