Monday, March 3, 2014

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As South Africa gears up for it's 'trial of the century' on Monday, its important to note how this incident falls into a larger trend of domestic violence in South Africa.

Like most people, I became aware of Oscar Pistorius because of his status as an athlete who overcame the loss of his legs below his knees to participate in an Olympics with able bodied athletes. His story of triumph over adversity is an example for any aspiring athlete trying to overcome the odds. What wasn't a great example however, was his reported affinity for guns and displays of anger. Their were numerous instances of anger against fellow athletes and girlfriends, but these incidents were papered over by the press, still awed  by his inspiring story. In this light, the shooting death of his girlfriend was perhaps not wholly unpredictable, but most unsettling of all is the fact that it is part of a frightening trend of violence against women in South Africa. I visited Johannesburg in the late 1990's on a trade mission sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I was surprised by how much the downtown area resembled New York or even Philadelphia. I was impressed with the construction going on and the unmistakable anticipation in the air for the upcoming World Cup games.

Fast-forward to 2014, and those World Cup glory days are veritably over. The upcoming trial of Oscar Pistorius is the new story, and it's dark narrative sheds sheds a light on a serious problem in South Africa. Violence against women is at an epidemic level and activists are drawing serious attention to saving women from physical abuse. From November 25th, 2013 to December 10th, 2013 the Annual Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender Violence took place in South Africa. Referred to as 'Vikela, Mzensi Kwanele!' this event was meant to facilitate a serious dialogue about the struggles women are being subjected to in South Africa.

An excerpt from a recent United Nations report outlines the international response to this issue:

Dr. Sadiq Syed, Officer-in-Charge of UN Women in South Africa, said that the UN family is committed to working with the government and stakeholders to end violence against women and girls in South Africa. “We call on every South African to stand up and speak out against gender-based violence,” he said, adding that the UN jointly with Government and civil society will make efforts to raise awareness by asking all people to ‘Orange Your World in 16 Days’ and use the colour orange to symbolize their commitment to this cause.

Many women do not feel that they will be helped if they report a crime of physical or sexual abuse. There is a low rate of convictions for perpetrators of these crimes. In Latin American societies, the power of men to abuse women is called Machismo, and there, like everywhere women's rights are violated, the ethos is that women should not question men about things like previous sexual encounters, or ask a lover to use protection. Any of these actions is seen as warrant for a violent beat down. As the world looks admires the great progress of South Africa after the eradication of Apartheid, the success and safety of women should should be a topic of great concern.

In this day and age, every woman should fully expect to be respected and treated as an equal citizen, not an object of derision. As the world watches this trial unfold, lets hope South Africa can find the courage to embrace progress.


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