THE MANDY WIENER REPORT Is femicide the new divorce?
THE NEW DIVORCE?
WHEN NEWS BROKE on social media that a teacher from Riebeek College Girls’ High School in Uitenhage was missing, the online community rallied. Pictures of Jayde Panayiotou’s face went viral, accompanied by a desperate plea to help nd her. The search gathered momentum and #FindJayde trended.
Perhaps it was a well orchestrated social media campaign or maybe it was because she was white or beautiful or middle-class, but the story resonated. When her body was later found, #RIPJayde became a rallying cry as the public vented their outrage at the high crime rate and brazenly called for her killers to be hanged and the death penalty to be reinstated. But then the almost inevitable twist in this story was revealed – Jayde’s husband, Christopher Panayiotou, was arrested for allegedly orchestrating the hit on her, paying money to have her killed. In South Africa, where the rate of intimate femicide is at 57% and where you are more likely to be killed by a lover than by a random stranger, we should not have been surprised at all. In truth, many weren’t. It has got to the point that when a woman goes missing in South Africa, many of us instinctively suspect the partner. Why is this and what does it say about us as a nation that this is our default setting?
The fact that Jayde’s case came in the wake of several highpro le local killings in which the husband, wife or lover has been responsible, added fuel to that suspicious re. The most obvious example is that of ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, who shot and killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013. The so-called honeymoon murder accused, Shrien Dewani, stood trial for arranging a hit on his bride, Anni, in Gugulethu in November 2012, but was later acquitted. In 2013, the ‘Black Widow’ Thandi Maqubela was convicted of killing her husband, acting judge Patrick Maqubela, in his apartment in Bantry Bay in Cape Town. In June 2007, Najwa Petersen was arrested for (and later convicted of) the murder of her husband, theatre personality Taliep Petersen. In Pretoria, Nico Henning is currently standing trial for allegedly masterminding the shooting of his estranged wife, Chanelle. Within days of Jayde’s death, a similar scenario was playing out in Polokwane, where businessman Rameez Patel appeared in court for allegedly murdering his wife, Fatima. The 28-year-old’s body was found in her home after what was believed to be a robbery.
This apparent trend has made Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Leonard Carr ask the question: is femicide, or murder in general, the new divorce?
‘I’ve had clients where one received a phone call saying that the other has taken out a hit on them. They’re on the verge or in the process of divorce and the hitman says, “They’ve offered me R10 000, how much will you give me if I do the hit on them?” It’s like auctioning.’
Incredibly, Leonard says this has occurred with more than one client and it’s a pattern he’s noticed over the past few years. ‘Generally, it’s where there is lots of money and, even when there hasn’t been direct contact from the hitman, the person has been highly anxious or suspicious that this could be coming. I think people have become commoditised to themselves and to each other. Relationships are spoken about in very commoditised terms. “She’s mine. He’s yours”.
I think society has become much more narcissistic – people are more focused on their own needs and gratifications as opposed to authentic intimacy. We’re also in a society where everything is disposable. What you practice with physical possessions becomes part of you.’
Leonard is also of the view that South Africa’s high rate of violent crime provides the ideal cover. ‘I think what’s given rise to it in this country, what’s made it an available option, is hijacking. Because a hijacking is almost the best way to commit the perfect crime and conceal a hit. No one will ever know. I think only a small number of cases come to public attention but these things are going on all the time.’
From what Leonard is suggesting, it may seem possible that some are choosing to take out their spouses rather than go through the process of divorce. In the case of Christopher Panayiotou, he admitted to an a air with his employee Chanelle Coutts over three years. The state alleges his reason for killing his wife was straightforward. ‘The motive for killing the deceased is very simple,’ investigating o cer Lieutenant Rhynhardt Swanepoel said in an a davit. ‘The applicant was in nancial di culty. He hardly managed to keep head above water. He was now in the process of acquiring a further R2.2 million debt, which meant it would be impossible for him to keep his mistress and wife happy. He was being forced into creating more debt so he decided to have the deceased killed, not to gain nancially, but to curtail his ever-increasing debt.’ Christopher refuted this.
But Lisa Vetten, research associate and gender expert at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser), says suggestions that femicide may be the new divorce are not only wrong, but damaging.
‘I think that is such a mistaken point of view and it obscures what is going on,’ she says, explaining that the opposite is true. ‘I have been researching this subject since 1995 and looked at the data internationally and the second most common reason women get killed in this country is because they try to leave. It is their husbands who won’t let them go. It is a completely di erent problem. The most common reason women are getting killed is around themes of jealousy and sexual ownership. The research doesn’t indicate that. I think you’ve always had that small number of men who insure their female partners and kill them in order to cash in and to them, a divorce is out of the question because then they won’t bene t from the insurance policy.’
Lisa says the focus should rather be on what is causing femicide, like sexual ownership and entitlement. ‘What is it that causes you to have a belief that women are your property? And why is it so catastrophic for some men that women want to leave them? Why do they want to maintain the fantasy that the relationship will continue by killing her, to prevent her from ever leaving?’
However, Lisa says it is right that we instinctively suspect the partner when a woman is killed. The statistics show that this is justi ed.
According to Statistics South Africa’s Victims of Crime Survey 2013/2014 on the relationship between victims and perpetrators, the majority of victims were murdered by known community members. A total of 39% of victims were killed by someone they knew in their environment. A remarkable 24% of victims were murdered by a relative
or a household member, 20% by friends or acquaintances and just a miniscule 2% were targeted by ‘unknown people’.
In South Africa, two major studies have been conducted on femicide, de ned as the killing of a woman because of her gender. Experts also refer to ‘intimate femicide’, speci cally when a woman is killed by an intimate partner – a husband, ex or current boyfriend; someone who proposes love. The Gender and Health Research Unit of the Medical Research Council compared the gures from a study done in 1999 and another in 2009 and the study showed a decrease of female homicides overall as well as for intimate femicides but the decrease for intimates was at a lower rate. They found that in 2009, one woman was killed by a partner every eight hours in South Africa compared with one women killed by a partner every six hours in 1999.
When comparing the proportion of all female homicides that were intimate femicides in t he t wo study years, a greater proportion of cases (57%) are seen to be intimate femicide in 2009 than in 1999 (50%). This means that intimate femicide has become the leading cause of female homicide in South Africa.
With all this in mind, the chances of Jayde Panayiotou – or any other woman, for that matter – being kidnapped and murdered in an anonymous crime are actually minimal.
Society’s response to these sky-high rates has generally been one of apathy, unlike in Argentina, where, in May this year, the discovery of a pregnant 14-year-old schoolgirl’s body under the patio of her boyfriend’s home sparked a nationwide protest against femicide. South Africa ranks higher than other reported rates globally, but there has been little research done around the world to provide a true re ection.
Professor Naeemah Abrahams was part of the Medical Research Council team that conducted the 2009 study. Like Lisa, she also thinks society’s default setting in these cases should be to suspect the lover.
‘Our data shows that 50% of women killed in the country are killed by an intimate partner. I do think that it is great that police suspect the people closest to her as a possibility. A couple of years ago they didn’t do it.’
What is it about our culture and society that makes these types of killing so commonplace? Is it an entrenched gender hierarchy, our violent past, lax gun laws? ‘It is all of that,’ Naeemah says. ‘It’s a combination of things: our psyche, our intergenerational passdown of our trauma, of a people who only knew violence as a way to deal with con ict. It is our easy access to guns. It’s not one single thing and that’s why our interventions shouldn’t be tackling just one single thing, either.’
Despite the prevalence of intimate femicide, Naeemah says the research globally does not support the notion that lovers may be choosing to kill rather than leave.
‘Consistently, not just here but in the US also, you are at higher risk if you are in an abusive relationship and you are planning to leave. This is not about the guy trying to get rid of her for his own motives and reasons, his relationships or money, this is the woman wanting to leave and the man not wanting her to do that. Usually, it is in circumstances where she wants to leave to go to a new relationship or she wants to get out of an abusive relationship and he loses control over her. This is what we have seen in our data. So whether it is the new divorce… it might be something new, we’ve not seen it. It could be a new trend, the fact that you can do it so easily in South Africa, that violence and murder is such a common thing so you won’t nd another murder or botched robbery strange. It’s just another side to the coin, I think.’
Novelist Margaret Atwood said, ‘ Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.’ It is a refrain that is proving to be tragically true in South Africa.
‘THE MOST COMMON REASON WOMEN ARE GETTING KILLED IS AROUND THEMES OF JEALOUSY AND SEXUAL OWNERSHIP’
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