What does the Pistorius trial say about how gender-based violence is dealt with today?
Most of us will not have escaped hearing about the sensationalized Oscar Pistorius trial, his being found not guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp but subsequently being found guilty of culpable homicide, defined in South African law as “the unlawful negligent killing of a human being”. Widespread shock has been voiced from all corners at this verdict, even more so at Pistorius’ anticipated attempt to cash in on the Steenkamp family’s pain. Despite the theories and the conjectures however, one stark fact looms from this case; and it is that none of us can ever really know what happened that fateful night when Pistorius awoke in a stupor to the sounds of what he says he believed to be an intruder in his home.
The details and ensuing outcome of this trial says a lot about the way gender-based violence is dealt with by society today. In the UK, the term ‘domestic violence’ is well-used in relation to cases such as these, the term ‘domestic’ giving these abominable acts an almost homely, everyday feel; a point highlighted by US Vice-President Joe Biden. But that is the sad truth about gender-based violence: it happens every day, in our own homes and is widespread across every strata of society. And yet, it remains invisible to the masses, and often to courts of law, because of it’s very setting: the sphere of the ‘private’ as opposed to the ‘public’.
A friend recently testified as a witness in relation to a domestic abuse court case. This was an unusual case for its type; my friend and other witnesses clearly saw the incident, it happened in broad daylight in public and the female victim was alive and ready to testify as was the male perpetrator. In the end the victim would not corroborate what the two witnesses clearly saw and the perpetrator walked away free with the incident being put down as purely accidental and a misunderstanding. The contrast between this and Pistorius’ case are striking; in both cases the perpetrator was male and survived, in one case there were multiple witnesses and the victim had the opportunity to speak out and of course, was able to walk away from the incident alive. However it was in the Pistorius case that the perpetrator met with some kind of punishment, as opposed to in my friend’s case.
So many domestic abuse cases end in the same way – even when the prosecution are lucky enough to have both a victim and witnesses ready to testify against the abuser . Often the abused will not speak out against the loved one who struck them, and when they do, it ends up being to absolve the abuser of their guilt, such as in the current debacle surrounding Ray Rice’s assault on his wife. In too many cases, the abuse goes undetected or ignored until the situation culminates in the ultimate death of the victim, as was the case with the aunt of my close friend and colleague Onjali Rauf. With gender-based violence often happening in the home where no third party is available to witness the crimes that occur, circumstances of violence often end up being mitigated and the abuser given reduced culpability and consequently, a reduced sentence.
I can’t help but wonder what Reeva Steenkamp would have done if she had survived this incident. It is clear her relationship with Oscar Pistorius was characterized by abuse. Would she be ready to put Pistorius out to dry and make sure he faced the full consequences of his actions? Or like many women out there, such as those who took part in the #whyIstayed testimonies on Twitter, would she have blamed herself, put this down to being just another freak incident, or told herself that he would never do anything like that ever again? Tragically, like too many women who have died at the hands of their male counterparts and continue to do so, we will never know.