New Books | Femicide in South Africa

Whenever femicide crops up in the news cycle, people argue that women should protect themselves with guns. Nechama Brodie shows how research proves this to be a very bad idea.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Nechama Brodie’s Femicide in South Africa (Kwela Books, 2020). 

‘Man Shoots Woman’: Firearms and femicide in South Africa 

‘Man shoots wife himself, after roadside argument’ – Pretoria News, 6 September 2001

‘Man kills woman and himself on PE street ’ – EP Herald, 29 January 2002

‘Man shoots wife then kills himself’ – The Citizen, 28 October 2002

‘Man shoots wife in city, then kills himself’ – Pretoria News, 19 December 2003

‘Cop jailed for shooting wife’ – The Citizen, 26 February 2004

‘Man shoots wife, cop, himself’ – The Star, 9 June 2004

‘Man shoots family’ – Daily News, 9 August 2004

‘Girlfriend gunned down in shop’ – The Star, 27 January 2005

‘Man shoots wife as he hands gun to police’ – Pretoria News, 8 April 2005

‘Husband shoots wife and two young sons dead’ – Sunday Times, 12 March 2006

‘Man shoots ex-wife on arrival at church’ – Cape Argus, 22 January 2007

‘Man kills pregnant woman, then shoots himself in EL store’ – Daily Dispatch, 13 June 2007

‘Man shoots wife, kills son’ – Witness, 2 January 2008

‘Man kills wife, shoots self’ – City Press, 17 February 2008

‘Man fatally shoots wife, misses kids, kills himself’ – The Star, 4 March 2009

‘Warder shoots wife at prison’ – Cape Times, 24 August 2009

‘Man shoots wife and then kills himself’ – The Star, 18 April 2012

‘Man kills ex-wife, shoots himself’ – The New Age, 2 January 2013

‘Traffic cop held for shooting wife’ – Daily Dispatch, 15 February 2013

‘Police officer allegedly shoots wife in head’ – The Star, 9 June 2017

‘Man shoots woman and then himself’ – Cape Argus, 1 November 2017

Before you read the rest of this chapter, think on this: the majority of women who are murdered in South Africa are killed by their intimate partners. More than 80% of intimate femicide victims are killed by a firearm injury, mostly from a single gunshot to the head or face. Most of them are killed in their own homes. In three-quarters of these cases, the perpetrator is a legal firearm owner using a licensed weapon.

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Whenever there is another mini “femicide crisis” in the news (the crisis is happening every day, but it’s only at certain times that the public and media pays attention), I am almost guaranteed of coming across a message on social media that goes something along the lines of “If only more women had more guns, we wouldn’t have such a femicide problem”.

This is not only untrue, it’s dishonest. Because we have decades’ worth of data showing exactly the opposite. But this doesn’t stop the misleading rhetoric that more gun ownership is somehow the key to reducing violence. In 2015, the lobby group Gun Owners of South Africa even created a campaign to encourage women to arm themselves. They called it “Girls on Fire” and the logo included a “sexy” silhouette of a woman holding an M-16 rifle. The campaign hashtag is #VictimNoLonger and it states that women should be “equipped with the appropriate tools to protect themselves and their families” (that is, guns), apparently oblivious to the fact that most women are murdered by intimate partners or close family members. In photographs on the organisation’s website, the Girls on Fire women (who are not actually girls, it seems) can be seen wearing black golf shirts with what I assume is an image of actual fire printed on the fabric. This has the unfortunate effect of making the women look like they are being braaied. Which, in my view, is possibly more accurate than claims that guns will help defeat gender-based violence.

Let’s go back to what we know about femicide for a moment: that most women are killed by their intimate partners, and that many of these women are killed by a gun legally owned by their murderer. It has never really been clear to me how arming women would improve this, the most likely potentially fatal situation women would find themselves in – unless the gun owner lobby is recommending a family-style six-gun shootout in the living room and whichever parent draws first, wins. I’m being deliberately flippant here, because it’s a grotesque scenario.

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But what about if the male perpetrator isn’t armed, you ask? If we imagine a scenario where a male perpetrator is about to stab, beat or strangle his intimate partner to death – surely there, you suggest, an armed woman at least now has a fighting chance. Guns are the great equalisers and might allow a woman to defeat an almost certainly physically stronger opponent, right? The problem with this scenario is that it relies on a host of other problematic assumptions, long before we get to the Julia Roberts Hollywood ending where she magically finds, draws and fires her weapon at the last minute. First, a reminder that women in abusive relationships sometimes aren’t even allowed to bathe or shower without their partner’s knowledge or approval. It’s hard to see how a woman in this kind of situation, where her every move is closely monitored and controlled, would go and secretly get a gun, and hide it from her partner. Then there is the even bigger question as to whether, even if she did get a gun, she would be able to get to its (secret?) hiding place in time and actually be able to use it before she was killed. This is not just conjecture. Every year there are multiple fe icide cases involving female police officers who are killed by their partners. Port Shepstone Constable Nandipha “Carol” Zibi was shot and killed with her own service pistol by an ex-boyfriend who attacked her at her home. Constable Nonhlanhla Martha Masia was shot at six times by her police captain husband – who came back to shoot her in the head when he saw her stand up again after the first volley. He later claimed he had shot her in self-defence. Warrant Officer Tessa Steyn was lying on a couch in her home when she was shot in the head by her estranged ex-cop husband, while their 12-year-old daughter was asleep in the room next door. Constable Mbali Nxumalo was shot and killed by her boyfriend, a Metro Police officer. And these are just some of the policewomen deaths that took place between 2012 and 2013.

The point is that if a trained police officer isn’t able to get to her service weapon to use it in her own defence, what are the odds that most other women – with less proficiency and quite probably a weapon that is not conveniently ready on a hip or leg or concealed holster but in a handbag or in a safe – would fare any better in the same situation?

“But what if a gun saved even one woman?” you ask.

Well, that is something to consider. But this is not what the data shows us. Research into murder, violence and mortality in South Africa repeatedly and consistently shows that guns have entirely the opposite effect when it comes to the safety and lives of women (and men, for that matter; men, after all, make up nearly 90% of gun deaths in South Africa). And that having a firearm in the home is a major risk factor in intimate femicide.

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Not only do we have longitudinal data that tells us how and how many people die from gunshot injuries, we also have data that shows us what happens when tighter controls are imposed on gun ownership (murders go down) and what happens when access to firearms increases again after that (murders go up).

The people who have produced, analysed and published this data are, as a rule, highly qualified academics and researchers, with decades of expertise in studying the demography and epidemiology of violence and mortality in particular. They (like me) study violence because they hope that better information can help us develop better solutions to reducing violence. And, trust me, if a single one of us thought more guns were a good solution, you can be sure we would say so.

The gun lobby repeatedly accuses these researchers of being partisan, but it’s not clear what kind of partisanship is involved in wanting fewer people to die in brutal ways – as opposed to the quite obvious agenda of the gun lobby which, over the past few years in particular, has increasingly adopted the mindless rhetoric of the heavily funded American pro-gun faction. Not coincidentally, this narrative corresponds with Donald Trump’s presidency and gun manufacturers’ attempts to expand their global markets outside of the United States (in much the same way as the tobacco lobby has now targeted Africa and Asia for death sticks).

Which brings us back to the ridiculousness of the assertion that the only way to stop a bad man with a gun is to have a good woman (or is it a girl?) with her own gun. This makes some addi- tional problematic assumptions about who is supposedly a “good” person (or a “good girl”). But it’s a myth. One that has been fact-checked and debunked quite thoroughly.

Naeemah Abrahams, Rachel Jewkes and Shanaaz Mathews’ 2010 study on guns and gender-based violence in South Africa (using data from the Medical Research Council’s 1999 femicide study) looked at the role of firearms in all female homicides, not just intimate-partner shootings. They found that, of teenage and adult women murdered in South Africa in 1999, a third of the victims had died from gunshot injuries, and more than 60% of these injuries had occurred at home. For the women who were victims of intimate partner gun homicide, “67.4% were killed with a single shot, most often to the head and face (63.7%)”.

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Another chilling statistic stood out from the study: nearly three-quarters of the guns used in these murders were licensed and legally owned, with unlicensed firearms used only in a quarter of gun femicides. Legal gun ownership was also linked with higher rates of suicide after the murder, increasing suicide risk seven times (or 700%) even after the researchers had adjusted the data for other social and demographic factors.

Another common argument I see online is that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that even if we took people’s guns away, they would find other ways of killing each other.

This is partly true but in this case it’s not the entire truth. Taking guns away wouldn’t stop murder as a whole. It would just stop a lot of it. One of the reasons for this is because guns are so efficient at doing what they are designed to do (kill people, fast) that it’s hard to change the outcome once a firearm has been drawn and used. Guns are extremely easy to fire, and gunshot wounds are more likely to be fatal than other injuries. Also, Stephen King movies notwithstanding, it is quite difficult to stab someone to death through a locked door.

South Africa is quite an important country for studies of gun violence, because we have a fairly large population (we’re more than double the size of Australia’s population, for example), and also because we have quite a lot of guns – useful when studying gun violence, but not so great for other things. Related to this fact, we also have quite a lot of violence.

Another reason why South Africa is an important case study for gun violence, though, is because about 20 years ago we changed our gun laws; and, as soon as these changes were rolled out, we also saw a corresponding change in the profile and proportion of gun deaths.

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