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The Countries Where Men Are More Likely to Get Light Sentences for Killing Women

As Oscar Pistorius is sentenced to just six years in jail for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Broadly asks the burning question: Where else can men murder their partners and go unpunished?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

After killing Reeva Steenkamp as she cowered behind a locked toilet door in the early hours of the morning on Valentine's Day 2013, Oscar Pistorius must have feared a lengthy custodial sentence lay before him. After all, the mandatory minimum jail term for murder under South African criminal law is 15 years, enough to put a stop to any vainglorious Paralympian's career.

The trial was difficult for Pistorius, even with a powerhouse defence team funded by selling his extensive property portfolio and luxury car. He broke down in tears repeatedly in court. But Pistorius' blessings weren't over just yet. After being gifted a trial judge willing to accept his confused and contradictory account of why he killed his girlfriend, Judge Thokozile Masipa acquitted Pistorius of murder and charged him with the lesser crime of culpable homicide. He was out in a year.


In December 2015, a South African appeals court overturned Masipa's ruling and found Pistorius guilty of murder. Once again, he ended up back in court for sentencing. But in Masipa's sentencing comments on Wednesday, she described the former athlete as a "fallen hero," adding, "the life of the accused shall also never be the same." Pistorius was sentenced to six years in prison—not the 15-year minimum for crimes of this type. In the courtroom, Steenkamp's family and friends were seen to visibly slump in their seats.

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Much has been written about Steenkamp's death, and some have—correctly—identified it as an act of gender-based violence. Prosecutors painted a picture of a jealous and possessive boyfriend: the fearful texts Steenkamp sent before her death ("scared of you sometimes and how u snap at me and of how u will react to me"); the raised voices and blood-curdling screams heard by neighbors on the night of the murder; an ex-girlfriend so scared of Pistorius she'd hide his gun.

While South Africa doesn't recognize the specific crime of femicide—the gender-based killing of women—it ranks in the top 25 countries globally for violence against women. A woman in South Africa is murdered by a current or former partner every eight hours.

South Africa is not the only place in which men are more likely to go unpunished after murdering their partners.


An image from an anti-femicide protest held in Buenos Aires in 2015. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"In Latin America, for example, a robust feminist and women's rights movement has pushed for recognition that the killing of women is a distinct crime," explained Amanda Klasing, a gender violence expert with Human Rights Watch (HRW). "But femicides continue."

Even when legislation exists, jealous boyfriends can take comfort from the knowledge that enforcement is patchy. Although Bolivia passed a law on gender-based violence in 2013 to address femicide, Klasing tells me that two years on, only ten convictions out of 115 cases have been secured. Despite international attention around the 2014 murder of former Miss Honduras Maria Jose Alvaro and her sister Sofia Alvarado, killed by Alvarado's boyfriend, "Honduras' fragile judicial system convicts less than 1 in 20 perpetrators of these types of crimes."

Rothna Begum, another gender violence expert with HRW, told Broadly that a cultural legacy of violence against women enables some perpetrators in Asia to act with impunity. "Many cultures endorse discriminatory notions of 'morality' that are often invoked for women alone, and can lead to murders. Councils of male elders in villages have ordered such punishments in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In India, khap panchayats (tribal courts) have come under severe criticism for their role in such murders."

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In the Middle East, a spectacular act of judicial system fuckery means that countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia will allow the families of a murder victim to pardon the offender. If—as is often the case—the victim was killed by a member of her own family, culprits can evade justice.

Outside of the Middle East and Latin America, plenty of boyfriends get away with it too. The US criminal justice system regularly fails victims of abuse, while the housing crisis in the UK forces women to return to violent partners. In Spain, an archbishop blames domestic violence on "disobedient wives."

But countries are beginning to wake up to the problem of femicide, Klasing says, citing Argentina as a particularly interesting case. "The debate is really alive right now and there's been a number of high profile cases, including the murder of 14-year-old schoolgirl Chiara Paez by her boyfriend in 2015. After protests the government agreed to create a national database to track femicide cases—something that had never existed and will take time to create."

Without real social change, Klasing is ambivalent that databases or specific laws will keep women like Paez, Steenkamp, and Alvarado safe from their boyfriends. "The killing of women, so often by a loved one, often happens after multiple failures by the state to provide protection or support to victims of domestic violence. When violence against women, in any form, exists with impunity, it reinforces the notion within society that the killing of women will not be met with a serious response by the state—in other words, it is a crime you can get away with.

"And too often, that is the case."