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Oscar Pistorius's Sentence Sends a Worrying Message About Violence Against Women

Make sure your defence is strong and you won't have too much to worry about.

by Eleanor Morgan
21 October 2014, 5:26pm

Oscar Pistorius at his sentencing earlier today (Screen grab via)

What a sad day for women. A South African court has decided that the life of one woman – Reeva Steenkamp, whose life was taken from her by the man she fell asleep with every night – is only worth five years of her killer’s.

To bring you up to date, Oscar Pistorius has been given a five-year prison sentence for killing his girlfriend, Steenkamp, under a culpable homicide charge. He is expected to serve around 10 months in prison (the maximum sentence for culpable homicide in South Africa is 15 years), with the rest under house arrest.

The “he’s serving his time” conversations are inevitable. Because yes, he is serving his time. Likely around 10 months of it.

While Steenkamp’s family may have said today that they feel “justice has been done”, statistics show that a woman is killed every eight hours by her partner in South Africa. Taking that and the sentencing into consideration, it’s hard not to wonder whether – with a different verdict, heard by the vast international audience of this trial – a future precedent for further fatal crimes against women could have been established?

The ANC Women’s League – which has been supporting Steenkamp’s exhausted mother, June, as the trial progressed, and have campaigned vigorously for harsh sentences in all cases of violence against women and children – tweeted the following statement this morning:

#ANCWL together with the nation is watching, with grave concern, the sentencing of Oscar Pistorius in the Northern Gauteng high court today. We have sought a legal opinion on the proceedings thus far, especially on the interpretation of the Pistorius judgement… #ANCWL remains dissatisfied with the verdict delivered by Judge Masipa finding Mr Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide instead of murder.”

Explaining her reasoning behind not convicting Pistorius of murder last month, Judge Thokozile Masipa said: “Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, and human beings are fickle.”

So dynamic was Pistorius’s relationship with Steenkamp that she sent him text messages saying she was “scared of you sometimes and how u snap at me and how you will react to me”. In other testimonies from the prosecution, it was revealed that Steenkamp felt “attacked” by the person she “deserved protection from”.

A run-of-the-mill dynamic relationship there, then. And a somewhat surprising view from a judge who, in the past, has ploughed a fierce furrow with her sentencing on crimes involving the abuse of women. It begs the question: How can such a woman acquit a man who "fired rapidly" through his bathroom door of intention to kill – if not Steenkamp, then whoever he thought was there?

Perhaps it had something to do with the “vulnerability” we heard so much about from Pistorius’s defence.

The accused weeped and vomited into a bucket when pathologist Professor Gert Saayman read his graphic testimony of Steenkamp’s bullet wounds (one in the head, one in the elbow, one in the hip and one in the webbing of her left hand) and how the food in her stomach suggested she had eaten within two hours of her death, at 3AM (Pistorius said they went to bed at 10PM). The court was also forced to adjourn – twice – as he broke down in the dock.

All that might suggest that he is indeed vulnerable – a broken man, physically sick at the thought of what he’s done. But should it really excuse the judge’s leniency?

Defence witness, parole officer Annette Vergeer, spoke of how prison may “break” Pistorius. How, without legs, “he will be vulnerable and a lot more vulnerable than the normal man”, fearing his disability may leave him open to attacks – or even gang rape. Again, it was – and is – dangerous territory to try and provoke charity where the violent attack – or, in this case, murder – of a woman is concerned.

To her credit, Masipa wouldn’t have any of it. “I listened to one witness after another placing what I thought was an over-emphasis on the accused’s vulnerability,” she said during sentencing today. “Yes, the accused is vulnerable, but he also has excellent coping skills.”

A pragmatic response in the face of the defence’s protestations, but one that makes it even harder to understand the sentence Pistorius received.

Here we are, though. A man who killed his partner – inadvertently, according to the judge – in the dead of night, while she lifted her hands in a futile attempt to stop the bullets tunnelling through her body, could potentially be able to sit on his own sofa, in his luxury home, within 10 months of doing so. What message does this send to the families of the women who are killed by their partners every single day in South Africa? What does it say to women who have feared for their lives in domestic relationships?

It’s this perception of getting-away-with-it – the idea that a crime of this severity inflicted on a woman by a man can be swallowed – that is most terrifying of all. But as we know from, say, the Ray Rice case, when a woman is abused by a powerful man – a celebrity – it can take a long time for people to get their head around (read: believe) it.

Oscar Pistorius being sentenced earlier today

The NFL only accepted that the American footballer was capable of savagely beating his fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious when they saw the leaked video of him doing it in a hotel lift. As it stands, Rice could potentially be reinstated to the NFL within four weeks. Because what’s a little pummelling-a-woman-out-cold between a hugely profitable athlete and the sporting industry?

No one doubts Pistorius committed a crime – he shot “maximum impact” bullets through the door, regardless of who he believed was behind it – and there will be millions who are surprised at the lightness of the punishment. Strong sentences in cases like these, or other violent attacks against women, are essential to show perpetrators that the law, and society, take violence seriously.

Violence against women is a global pandemic. Thirty-eight percent of murders of women are committed by an intimate partner, with further figures from The World Health Organisation showing that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

A sentence like Pistorius’s sends the wrong message to these women. It violates a woman’s – Steenkamp’s – right to justice. It says, “Don’t worry, if your defence is good enough, you might get away with it.” Because even though Pistorius is – as his uncle Arnold said outside the court today – “embracing the opportunity to pay back to society”, he can’t “pay back” a life lost.

There is a life missing here now – a life of a young, beautiful woman who had no idea she would bleed to death on the bathroom floor that night. A life removed of its potential.

Women must believe that the justice system will work to bring the harshest possible sentences on those who commit violence against them. We have to believe that. Today, though, while Steenkamp’s family have found some kind of closure, for many, that belief will have buckled.

@eleanormorgan

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