New study hopes to break chain of femicides

After another sombre week of femicide and funerals, a new study hopes to help guide the government in protecting vulnerable teenagers by understanding adolescent homicides in South Africa.

Ayakha Jiyane was a second mom to the squad, her pet name for her stepsisters Kwezi, Siphesihle and Kuhlekonke Mpungose. On 3 September, the 17-year-old schoolgirl was found hanging from a tree. She had been strangled to death with a dressing gown cord. 

She wasn’t the only one to die that day. The squad – a term of endearment used by Ayakha’s mother, Xoli Dladla-Mpungose – were also killed. 

Kwezi, Siphesihle and Kuhlekonke were found hanging in the family home in Wyebank, KwaZulu-Natal. As a new study has revealed, Ayakha died as so many other teenage girls die in South Africa, allegedly at the hands of a family member. 

The police say Ayakha was picked up from school and taken to a bushy area near New Germany, where she was murdered. Her stepfather, Sibusiso Mpungose, has been arrested for the four murders.  

A guide for the government

The names of young women murdered in recent weeks have scrolled across television screens and been tied to hashtags on Twitter feeds. With the media attention have come calls for harsher sentences for perpetrators and for the government to do more to protect women. 

But there is a problem. While South Africa has one of the highest murder rates in the world, not much is known about the victims and perpetrators of these killings. 

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This new study attempts to understand adolescent homicides in South Africa. The hope is that it will help guide the government in introducing measures that will assist in protecting vulnerable teenagers. The study, titled Homicide Pattern Among Adolescents: A National Epidemiological Study of Child Homicide in South Africa, appeared in the academic journal PLOS One.

“No one has really looked at adolescents and homicide. In fact, we don’t even know about male homicide in this country because there are police statistics but they are not aggregated by age, so we don’t know the age profile,” explains Professor Naeemah Abrahams, one of the authors of the paper. 

Their research was based on a nationwide mortuary study, supplemented with information from police interviews and records. The focus of the study was on children and teenagers aged between 10 and 17.

Rape and strangulation

The study used records from 2009, as data was only collected from cases that had gone through the legal system. It identified 674 adolescent homicides for inclusion, 520 of which were male and 154 female. What they found was that gender disparity increased as children aged. By late adolescence, young men were being killed five times more often than young women. 

“Children who are killed when they are under the age of five die because of child abuse and neglect,” says Abrahams, who is the deputy director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit.  

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A snapshot of how young adults were killed in 2009 emerged from the study.

Nearly half the adolescent females died at home and were killed by a family member or an intimate partner. More than a third of them were raped and killed, and 11% were strangled to death. 

“Uyinene [Mrwetyana] was killed by a stranger. Only 10% of women who are killed, are killed by strangers,” says Abrahams.  

Knife crimes

Adolescent males died predominantly in public places, the study found. Most were stabbed to death compared with the 23% of young women who died as a result of knife crime.  

As boys get older, their chances of being killed increase dramatically. Between the ages of 10 and 14, the homicide rate is 3.39 per 100 000. This figure jumps to 27.9 per 100 000 for teenagers aged 15 to 17. The male homicide rate continues to climb into the early 20s, then it begins to tail off.  

Many of those killed were also perpetrating violence at the time. Among those included in the study, similar numbers of men to women died from gunshot wounds. Not surprisingly, alcohol was a feature.

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Another worrying statistic that emerged from the study was how often these crimes go unsolved. 

“In our femicide study, for 20% of women killed the perpetrator was never found,” says Abrahams. “And those women who die, where the perpetrator is not found, they are poor women who are found on the side of the street. And it is women whose families don’t have the ability to fight the system and to fight for justice.”

Part of the problem, says Abrahams, is the quality of police investigations. Ultimately, the authors of the study hope their research will help in identifying policies and practices that will reduce violence.   

Early prevention

Non-governmental organisation Sonke Gender Justice has welcomed the study and hopes it will assist in reducing the high rates of femicide in the country.  

“Not enough is done by government to fund intervention programmes,” says Sonke Gender Justice spokesperson Given Sigauqwe. “If you listened to the president’s speech, when he spoke on gender-based violence, he spoke a lot about the justice system. But this is an after-the-fact measure. We are advocating for the national strategic plan that will ensure that our communities have early prevention programmes.”

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These programmes, he says, need to tackle from an early age the phenomena of toxic masculinity, from which emerges certain male traditional stereotypes that promote violence such as sexual assault and domestic assault.

Research has shown that men who kill an intimate partner often had early traumatic experiences.

More research required

Gender activist and researcher Lisa Vetten has said that while such a study is important in understanding murder in a South African context, more detailed research is needed as the issue is extremely complex.

“I have struggled at how we try and understand the murder of young women in South Africa in the last two weeks. You can’t look at a single year. You need to look at trends when it comes to murder,” she says, adding that South Africa’s murder rate dropped for a decade then recently started climbing again.

“Masculine domination is clearly an important part of the explanation, but doesn’t explain why things went down for a decade and then started going up. There have got to be other factors that we need to look at, if we are serious about understanding murder.” 

To highlight this complexity, Vetten used the example of women in rural areas being more likely to die after an assault than their counterparts in urban settings, because they don’t have the same access to medical facilities.  

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 “This moves from where this would be a case of grievous bodily harm to murder,” she says.

The fight to curb femicide has seen some success in the past, says Abrahams.

South Africa saw a decrease in the murder rate for men and women after the introduction of the Firearms Control Act of 2000, which tightened gun ownership laws.

“There was no other explanation for this decrease, but we have seen an increase so that is why we are worried. Something has happened with gun control,” says Abrahams.   

‘My pride and joy’

Ayakha’s funeral was held on Sunday 8 September 2019 at the Copesville Sportsfield near Pinetown. It was a sombre end to a week in which a number of high-profile femicides had caught the media’s attention.  

A day earlier, Mrwetyana, the University of Cape Town student who was raped and murdered by a postal worker, was laid to rest in Beacon Bay, East London. 

On Friday that week, 11-year-old Thandi Mampane’s body was found in the veld near Ga-Marishane village outside Groblersdal in Limpopo. She had gone missing on her way to school. 

Ayakha’s mother read a letter to her dead daughter at the funeral: “You will always be my pride and joy. Ayakha, you were not just a big sister, you were the second mom to the squad,” she read. Continue taking care of your siblings. I am sorry I couldn’t protect you all.”

Abrahams hopes that one day her research will help protect young women like Ayakha. “It is a start,” she says of her research. “If we don’t describe it, we don’t know how to deal with it.”

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