LIFESTYLE

Media Reports Would Have You Believe There Is An Increase Gender-Based Violence, But There Isn't

Less than 20 percent of all femicides that happen every year are covered in the press.

18/05/2017 11:05 SAST | Updated 24/05/2017 11:33 SAST
Getty Images/iStockphoto

On Wednesday, Karabo Mokoena's memorial service was held in Soweto, Johannesurg. Mokoena was found dead, burnt beyond recognition and buried in a shallow grave in a deserted patch of veld. She had been murdered and set alight by her boyfriend. Mokoena's tragic death is the most recent case of femicide — the intentional killing of women — to have sparked extensive media and public attention.

Social constructions of manhood also play a role in driving Gender-Based Violence (GBV). This is because the masculine identity is intertwined with the notion of power, another major driver of GBV.

Mokoena's murder has reignited the national conversation on the issue through extensive media reportage and public engagement. Her death has instigated substantial media attention on the disappearance and murders of women and girl children, the targeting of women who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, rape and other forms of violent physical assault on women.

Mokoena's murder also opened up an entourage of gut-wrenching stories poured out under the social media hashtag #MenAreTrash by South African women who have experienced violent acts perpetrated against them by men — often of those who were close to them. This week, several cases of violence against women captured the South African media attention. On Tuesday, a woman had been kidnapped and gang-raped by a group of 11 men at Mnyama Ndawo corner, in Johannesburg. And on Sunday, a lesbian woman was found dead with stab wounds and big stones around her head. This is suspected to be a "corrective" rape attack, which follows on the heels of several such crimes reported in recent years.

These cases have seen the media and South Africans engage the issue of gender-based violence on a new level, to such an extent that many are led to believe that all of a sudden women are unsafe. But, there is nothing new about the extent of violent levelled against women. Femicide, rape, and other forms of physical assault are rife in South Africa's university campuses, workplaces, public transport and every other space that women occupy.

Intimate partner femicide is the leading cause of murder of women in South Africa, accounting for 50 percent of female homicides in 1999 and 57 percent in 2009, according to a study published by the South African Medical Research Council. "Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence experienced by South African women, according to a South African Stress and Health survey," states an International Security Studies report.

The true extent of the problem of gender-based violence is thus unknown as a result of the underreporting of such crimes.

Chris de Kock, an independent consultant and analyst on crime and violence, told HuffPost this week that gender-based violence was "an on-going issue" which the media covers in temperamental phases. The national conversation rises and "highlights the issue" in relation to specific cases that have gotten grand-scale media attention. According to De Kock, when the media-hype around particular instances die down, so too does the national conversations, but the incidents persist. Nechama Brodie, journalist and researcher working on a PhD looking at data on media coverage of femicide in SA, supports De Kock's claims.

According to Brodie, less than 20 percent of all femicides that happen every year are covered in the press. Of the approximately 2,200 femicides that happen each year in South Africa, less than 400 make it into the news. Brodie also added that when high profile cases of femicides attracted the attention of the media, it "tends to amplify other cases of femicides".

Brodie notes how in February 2013 when two women were killed by their partners — Reeva Steenkamp, a model who was killed by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, and Anene Booysen a teenager whose rape and murder was laid at the doorstep of two men, one of which she had a crush — there was a spike in media interest in femicide. According to Brodie, there was almost double the reports of femicide reported in the media during the month of Booysen and Steenkamp's deaths, compared to the months before and after. From a media consumer's perspective, according to Brodie, "what feels like a spike in incidence of gender-based violence and femicide, is simply a spike in media coverage".

Femicide, the most extreme form of gender-based violence, has stronger data than all other forms, because most murders are reported to the police, while other forms remain underreported.

Acts of violence against women in all forms are among the most under-reported crimes in the world. There is a variety of reasons for this, which include cultural attitudes which perpetuate rape culture and victim-blaming, in addition to flaws in both the justice and the policing systems which rest on the de-facto cardinal principle of modern international law: the burden of proof, or innocence until proven guilty. It has been well-documented and widely discussed that the consequence of all of the above is that women who report acts of violence are treated by the policing system as if they are liars, and their cases are not treated with deserved seriousness. According to the Sunday Times, in the Mokoena case, prior to her murder, Mokoena had tried to open a case of domestic violence against her boyfriend, but police officers at the station told the two to "work it out", because he had already opened a case against her, and so the police said that they could not be investigating "counter-claims".

In an extensive study by the South African Medical Research Council, it found that in the year 1999, most cases of intimate femicide in the South African Police Service (SAPS) dockets had not recorded past history of partner violence, despite research showing that this is very common and valuable in securing a conviction. The same study showed that the vast majority of female homicides documented between 1999 to 2009 went unpunished, with less than 38 percent of intimate-partner femicides leading to conviction in less than two years. The true extent of the problem of gender-based violence is thus unknown as a result of the underreporting of such crimes. According to Brodie, femicide, the most extreme form of gender-based violence, has stronger data than all other forms, because most murders are reported to the police, while other forms remain underreported.

The National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa), the single biggest trade union in South Africa, in a press statement on Mokoena's memorial service said that it "calls on all members but men in particular to do all they can to fight against the violent nature of masculinities that are pervasive in our society".

According to De Kock, the issue of gender-based violence is "social in nature" — i.e pertaining to social issues including early socialisation of young boys who are taught to believe that women are objects, other social ills such as alcohol and drug abuse, as well as poverty and unemployment, which can be detrimental to the self-image of men. Poor self-image leads men to take out their anger and frustration on women, said De Kock.

A 2016 report by the Centre for the Study of Violence And Reconciliation and the Finnish Embassy in Pretoria supports de Kock's claims, agreeing that there is no single reason or cause for gender-based violence.

"What is apparent is that inequality and the acceptance of violence are two extremely important factors to engage with, as they appear to perpetuate GBV," the study goes on to conclude.

"Social constructions of manhood also play a role in driving GBV. This is because the masculine identity is intertwined with the notion of power, another major driver of GBV. It confirms men's superiority over women and feeds into societal perceptions of what it means to be a man."