Women Sleeping with the Enemy

Women Sleeping with the Enemy

On June 15 1994, the senior specialised auxillary service officer wrote: "I am in the service of the Transvaal Provincial Administration and employed as a senior mortuary officer at the mortuary of the Baragwaneth Hospital of Johannesburg.

"On 1996/06/11 at 08h00 in the performance of my official duties there the dead body of a black female was received from Phillip M. The body was marked Hospital No UF: 028086.

"On June 15 at 11h30 I handed this body to Constable N of the government mortuary at Diepkloof, Johannesburg. While the said body was in the mortuary or under my care, it sustained no injuries and/or wounds.

"Constable N. points out the body to Sergeant P, who further states under oath: I found the body in the following circumstances 'covered with plastic shroud' and observed the following characteristics 'sutured wound on the abdomen.'

On 94/06/17 and at Diepkloof the body was pointed out to me by Matlakala M (address) and identified as the body of Agrineth M. On 1996/06/17 I pointed out and identified the body to Dr RC J, the Government pathologist responsible for the post-mortem examination on the body, as being the body of DK 1273/94.

"Report on a medico-legal post-mortem examination (GW 7/15) to the Magistrate of Johannesburg by DR RC J certifies '(i) that at DIEPKLOOF RGL on the 16th of June 1994, commencing at 7h45 I examined the body of A black female; (ii) that this body was identified to me (a) by Sergeant M of SAP Medico-Legal LABS; and (b) by (see attached affidavit of Sergeant M) as being that of body DK 1273/94 whose reputed/estimated age was 23 years, (iii) that death took place(a) as informed on 1994/06/10 at 17h35 (b) as determined at examination…hours prior to my examination; (iv) that the chief post-mortem findings made by me on this body were (See Schedule) (v) that, as a result of my observations, a schedule of which follows, I concluded (a) that death had occurred as above prior to my examination; and (b) that the cause/causes of death was/were the following: raised inter-cranial pressure following assault."

So ends the account of body DK 1273/94 – the violence done to her made bureaucratic and routine.

Such standard reports are made over and over again at any one of South Africa's mortuaries as brutality is regulated – women's organs weighed, their stab wounds measured, bullet holes counted, haematomas described.

Four times a day these flat, emotionless records are compiled to account for the women killed every six hours by their intimate partners. This translates into a prevalence rate of 8.8 per 100 000 of the female population aged 14 years and older – the highest rate ever reported in research anywhere in the world.

This finding by the Medical Research Council, the University of Cape Town and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation comes from the first national study on female homicide and is based on data collected from 25 mortuaries around the country, as well as interviews with police officers, for female homicides that occurred in 1999.

Approximately half of all killings recorded were perpetrated by intimate partners, who were overwhelmingly male. Women killed by their intimate partners were also more likely to be killed in their homes, to be employed as domestic workers and to be killed by blunt force. They also tended to be younger than women killed by non-intimate partners. Those who killed their intimate female partners were also more likely to have problems with alcohol.

Intimate partners were also most likely to kill women with firearms, with one in every five of the women being shot with a legal firearm. This points to the need to strictly regulate and control gun ownership. Clearly, anyone with a history of alcohol abuse and/or domestic abuse should never be permitted any form of access to a gun.

But returning to Agrineth M, body DK 1273/94: It is 10 years since her body was brought to Diepkloof Mortuary. Despite the inquest magistrate finding Freddy Sibeko, Agrineth M's partner, responsible for her death, he has never been charged.

Agrineth M is not the only woman whose death has been treated as being of little or no consequence. In 7% of cases that were probable homicides, no police case number existed and there was no evidence of a police investigation ever having taken place. In a further 6% of cases, dockets were missing from the police stations. Still other dockets were incomplete or lacked post-mortem reports. Death registers were found to be absent or incomplete at some mortuaries. Thirty-nine percent of post-mortem reports were less than adequate. Consequently, cases were neither adequately investigated nor leads properly followed up.

The study highlighted other ways in which members of the criminal justice system sometimes neglect to provide justice to the dead. For instance, convictions were less likely when the victim was the perpetrator's intimate partner (35% of intimate partner killings resulted in convictions, as opposed to 40% of the non-intimate partner killings). Sentences for intimate partner killings were also shorter (10.7 years) than those for non-intimate partner killings (12.4 years).

Worse, the study found a differential valuing of women's lives based on race. Not only was a conviction less likely when the victim was an African woman, but the sentence was also longer when the victim was white. It is to the custodians of violent death – the police, pathologists, prosecutors and judges – that we look for justice. We may ask of them, as God did of Cain, "What have you done? The voice of your sisters' blood cries unto us from the ground."

Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

Originally published in The Star, 22 November, 2004.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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